When Alexandra Hope Erickson took her own life during her senior year of high school, her friend Maggie Kennedy couldn’t comprehend it.
“I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Numb and empty, I shook and I wept and I clung to my family and friends,” Kennedy said. “How could she be gone?”
Erickson had been sexually assaulted by her ex-boyfriend before her suicide, Kennedy said.
“Alex was so afraid that he was going to kill her, so she didn’t let him,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy, a junior political science and communication major and Pitt’s representative for It’s On Us — an organization that has tasked itself with changing the way sexual assault is discussed — was the only student to speak at the Southwest PA Says NO MORE event Monday night. But she received a standing ovation for her testimony on the prevalence and consequences of sexual assault.
Also attending the event — held at Pitt’s University Club — were more than 80 community leaders, university presidents and elected officials from around southwest Pennsylvania. The event’s purpose was to showcase the important prevention-focused work happening in the region. It also aimed to serve as an example for other individuals and organizations to stop gender-based violence.
In collaborating with other organizations, the FISA Foundation — a group which provides grants to non-profits in the area to focused on helping women, girls and people with disabilities — organized the Southwest PA Says NO MORE event. Speakers gave their own reports and opinions on how the specific organizations they represented have been working to prevent this epidemic and what steps should be taken in the future.
Carlow University President Suzanne Mellon touched on the programs and efforts currently underway, while addressing the importance of being thorough in the fight against sexual violence — a sentiment that was repeated throughout the presentation.
“Videos can be impressive, but as a leader it is not enough to just say inspiring things,” Mellon said.
The event introduced a series of videos that featured the presidents of 13 colleges and universities in Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties, including Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. Each of the videos talked about the importance of addressing and preventing sexual violence while making a plea for those who have been victims or witnesses of sexual violence to come forward.
This event comes as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reexamines Title IX — a section of the federal rights law passed in 1972, which prevents sex and gender discrimination in education. She plans on reviewing the Obama-era policy which extended Title IX guidelines to protect against any sexual misconduct, in addition to gender-based discrimination.
Representatives from the office of Gov. Tom Wolf — such as Pennsylvania Department of Health Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine — were adamant the governor would fight these rollbacks.
“While it is hard to specifically comment on what Secretary DeVos intends exactly, the Wolf Administration and Governor Wolf is committed to Title IX and prevention of sexual assault on campuses and we don’t want any diminishment on the emphasis on this incredibly important issue,” Levine said.
Gov. Tom Wolf recently expanded his “It’s on Us PA” campaign Wednesday, announcing six new bills focused on improving reporting for sexual assault and harassment in public K-12 schools and colleges and calling for House and Senate support. One of the bills would require all colleges in the state to give amnesty from drug and alcohol offenses to students who reported a sexual assault.
Kennedy spoke about how sexual violence is an issue not just confined to campuses but prevalent even before students come to college.
“The toxic entitlement to other people’s bodies and the misogyny of rape culture begins even before high school, but is certainly cultivated within those four years and made worse by sending everyone off to respective colleges and other environments,” Kennedy said.
The statistic brought up by a majority of the speakers was that one out of every five female undergraduates and one out of every 16 male undergraduates have reported experiencing sexual assault while in college.
Kennedy expressed how glad she was that leaders and elected officials from around the region were taking sexual assault seriously.
“It’s really encouraging to see all these colleges and universities come together on this issue,” Kennedy said. “Obviously I know what Pitt is doing to help but it is really encouraging to not only see representation from the other schools, but representation from their presidents.”