Penn State

Penn State sex assault task force makes recommendations to President Eric Barron

Penn State President Eric Barron has some reading to do and some decisions to make.

The President’s Task Force on Sexual Assault and Harassment has completed a 267-page report with 18 recommendations to address sexual violence on campus, a subject that has gathered attention from the White House to colleges across the country. The 17-member committee delivered the report to Barron last Friday. It was officially unveiled at a media event on Thursday.

It took about five months to develop the recommendations covering areas from education to response, at University Park and across the Commonwealth Campuses, for both students and employees.

“It is not easy to define the scope of the problem, either nationally or at Penn State. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five women in the United States will be raped in her lifetime, and 63 percent of American women have experienced some form of sexual violence,” the report stated. “In the majority of cases, the assault was committed by someone the woman knew. And those numbers fail to take account of the men sexually assaulted in this country, estimated to be 10 percent of the total assaults. What we know and agree must change is that the number of individuals physically, mentally and emotionally harmed by sexual misconduct in our campus communities is too many.”

The first step is acknowledging the problems.

“We are starting a conversation within the university,” said task force chairman and Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims. “We are creating a culture at Penn State that says we do not tolerate this behavior.”

Sims said Barron will review the recommendations and decide on implementation by mid-February.

Those recommendations include creating a dedicated Title IX coordinator, revamping the Office of Student Conduct to use an investigative process rather than hearings, designating employees as either “confidential” or “mandated reporters,” increasing training and education, and more.

“One of the good things is that ... we are already transitioning to an investigative model,” said Danny Shaha, of the Office of Student Conduct.

The transition is much like law enforcement recently shifting to the use of the Centre County Child Advocacy Center for crimes involving children, allowing victims to have one interview rather than repeatedly telling their story and being retraumatized by the process. An investigator will replace a five-member hearing panel and will present his or her findings to a three-person group that will determine responsibility and recommend sanctions if appropriate.

One significant change is that the panel will no longer include student representatives, just faculty and staff. Shaha said that change is a reflection of federal recommendations that discourage student involvement in the process.

Shaha said the process will be piloted soon at University Park before being tested at other campuses. One investigator is already on board — former university police detective Spencer Peters, a member of the task force.

For Peggy Lorah of the Center for Women Students, an important recommendation of the report clarifies which employees may hold information confidential and which are obligated to tell someone about an assault. The State College-based Centre County Women’s Resource Center has said that since the focus on sex crimes was renewed in recent years, reports have fallen on campus but risen at their office just a few blocks away as women sought help but had not decided about making an official report.

Lorah said the distinction, as well as education about it, should help students find assistance on campus from those that can keep their information private, such as her group and Counseling and Psychological Services.

Lorah also addressed the balance of talking about important topics, such as the 85 percent of sexual assaults that have an alcohol component, and not engaging in shaming that puts the victim’s behavior in question.

“The matters of sexual assault, as well as sexual violence and misconduct that students and members of our faculty and staff may face, are of the utmost significance. This thorough account and advisement by the task force is a highly informative document that I am grateful to receive,” Barron said in a statement. “Although some recommendations seem highly prudent and ready to implement — such as adding a dedicated Title IX office and issuing a University-wide climate survey — I will take the time to consider how to proceed on all recommendations.

“We want Penn State’s campuses to be safe, welcoming environments,” Barron added. “The university is prepared to do its part to lead the way in addressing sexual violence within the commonwealth and in American higher education.”