Jerry Sandusky Scandal

Sex assault survivors at Penn State praised for breaking their silence

The first time Penn State student Melissa Skolnick told she was a victim of a sexual assault was in a speech class.

But fellow student and sexual assault survivor Chelsea Bernheisel hadn’t told anyone outside her group of friends and family.

Both women stood up in front of nearly three dozen Penn State students and staff Tuesday night and spoke of their experiences during a presentation to honor survivors of sexual assault and highlight the resources available at Penn State. It was the sixth year for the event, “Honoring Survivors: Transforming the Spirit.”

“Sometimes, as much as we fear the consequences, we will not be able to move on unless we try,” Bernheisel said of disclosing her abuse.

Both women gave permission to use their full names.

Skolnick said she was assaulted on campus in January 2012, but she did not go into the details of her attack. Her attacker, she said after her presentation, was a friend of hers who has since left the university.

Skolnick said the attack made her feel “dead inside,” and it wasn’t until she discovered a quote about life from Robert Frost on the website that she decided to move forward, accept what happened and start healing. The quote: “It goes on,” she said.

“The past is difficult to accept. Letting go of the self-blame can be even harder,” she said.

Skolnick later said she went through Penn State’s judicial process with her attacker. On the criminal side, her attacker was never charged.

She said she is upset about not getting justice, but she understands the potential hurt she could face on the witness stand. She said she was drunk during her attack, and that she could have been grilled by a defense attorney.

For Bernheisel, a 20-year-old from Lancaster, her attacker was someone she did not know, and she said State College police are investigating it, though without any leads.

Bernheisel went into details about her attack, and she fought off choking up as she relived the pain.

She met the man at a party, where she was drinking alcohol with her friends. She was tipsy, she said, when he took her to another room and wanted to quickly “go further.”

Feeling uneasy about the situation, Bernheisel said she declined his advances, she said, and that’s when he got angry. He went for her throat, and squeezed harder when she screamed.

She said she gave up fighting back, because she figured she could handle it.

The entire time he assaulted her, he kept his hand on her throat, she said, choking up.

Bernheisel told the crowd what he told her when it was over: “Stop crying. You know you enjoyed it.”

She tried processing what happened. The bruising on her neck was mistaken for hickeys, and it took her days to tell her friends. It took even longer to tell her parents, out of fear for the pain they would suffer.

“I hated how people didn’t know what to say or act around me,” Bernheisel said. “I hated the way it made me feel so vulnerable. I’m finally learning that I didn’t do anything wrong.”

The pre-med major realized that she was turning into a different person, and that is what set into motion the start of her healing.

“I’ve spent too long in silence watching myself fade away,” she said.

At Penn State, two groups — Peers Helping Reaffirm, Educate and Empower, or PHREE, and Men Against Violence — provide educational programs to raise awareness about sexual and relationship violence. The groups are advised by the university’s Center for Women Students, which was one of the sponsors of the presentation Tuesday.

The other sponsor was Penn State’s Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs.

The employees who coordinated the event through their centers, Beth Bradley and Audra Hixson, said they hoped the stories from the abuse survivors raise awareness about an issue that is hidden or minimized.

Hixson said support for a survivor is essential as well as a safe place where survivors can share the stories such as Skolchik’s and Bernheisel’s.

“I think it needs to be heard,” Bernheisel said. “It’s too easy to shove these details under the rug.”