Pittsburgh college students: If you’ve experienced sexual violence, these local resources can help.


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Students write notes of support during a protest against sexual violence outside the Cathedral of Learning Friday afternoon.

By Emma Folts and Mila Sanina

This story was originally published by PublicSource

Content warning: This story contains references to sexual violence.

Every survivor of sexual violence embarks on their own journey of seeking healing and justice at some point. But oftentimes, they aren’t sure where to start.

If you’re a college student who has experienced sexual violence, there are resources and options available to you in the Pittsburgh region and at your university. Advocates, university officials and legal and healthcare professionals who spoke with PublicSource encourage survivors to know their rights and choices and what to expect from the available options.

Healthcare providers could assist with emergency care and evidence collection. Therapy could help with mental health. Community could translate into support and advocacy. Title IX, a federal law, could be your legal tool.

Justice could mean a lot of things: For some, it’s going through the criminal justice system, while for others, it’s following the Title IX process. Either way, it’s possible these paths may not end with the outcome you’re hoping for. No matter the institutional results, receiving early validation and support from others is frequently crucial, said Megan Schroeder, director of victim response at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape [PAAR].

“We have a lot of conversations with our clients around not holding on to that specific outcome, whatever it is,” Schroeder said. “We really want to think about, along the way, ‘How could we infuse that support or that validation for you so that you can really pull something that you need out of this process, regardless of how it turns out?’”

PAAR has provided counseling and support to survivors for 50 years. The organization operates a 24/7, confidential hotline at 1-866-363-7273, which may serve as a helpful starting point. When you call, counselors walk you through your options, provide support and help you access resources and services.

PAAR’s website states that advocates can join you anytime at hospital emergency rooms and police stations in the county, explain your university’s policies and provide information on reporting to the police and moving forward with a civil case, among other options. You can find more information on PAAR’s services here.

As you begin your healing journey, here are additional resources and options that may help you.

Seeking medical care

Amanda Ringold, a nurse practitioner in UPMC Magee Womens Hospital’s Emergency Department, encourages students who believe they’ve experienced sexual violence to reach out to a healthcare provider even if they are not sure that they were assaulted.

“It’s always better to be safe than sorry,” Ringold said. “People will come and say, ‘Well, I’m not even sure if anything happened. I was drinking and I fell asleep. And now my pants are on inside out.’”

Receiving medical attention as soon as possible can help with evidence collection, if that is an option you’re seeking. UPMC recommends that survivors refrain from changing their clothes, eating, drinking, brushing their teeth or taking a shower until they’ve received care. If you’ve already done any of this, bring the clothes you were wearing with you — evidence can still be collected, according to PAAR.

At UPMC Magee, medical professionals talk to survivors about resources, offer a sexual assault exam or “rape kit” and connect them with therapy support through PAAR as soon as possible, Ringold said. The hospital calls a PAAR advocate immediately upon a survivor’s arrival.

In Allegheny County, nurses specifically trained in caring for survivors are listed as being available at UPMC Magee and UPMC Mercy.

“We have a specific room. It’s got a shower. It’s kind of back in the corner, a little quieter for them,” Ringold said of UPMC Magee. “In the room, [we] do a basic assessment, make sure they don’t have any immediate medical, emergency medical needs, and then we will talk to them about all their options, about getting evidence collection, talking to law enforcement.”

Hospitals are able to treat survivors and collect evidence even if the person has not reported or does not want to report to the police. The patient’s wishes are paramount, Ringold said, and if they choose, they can receive a sexual assault exam. This could include taking saliva and fingernail samples and providing medicine to prevent infections, according to UPMC.

“We can medically screen them and make sure they’re physically OK and offer them any medication prophylaxis for STDs, pregnancies, HIV and let them go,” Ringold said.

You can contact UPMC Magee’s emergency services line at 412-641-4950.

PublicSource spoke with survivors, advocates, lawyers, police and university officials to investigate the prevalence of sexual violence on Pittsburgh college campuses and reveal gaps in how universities and the criminal justice system protect students and serve survivors in its “The Red Zone” series.

Reporting to your university

Filing a complaint through your university’s Title IX office may allow your university to conduct an investigation and will require the institution to provide you with supportive measures. Your university may be able to connect you with counseling, allow you to take a leave of absence or help you have a more manageable course load, among other forms of support.

A support you may find valuable is a no-contact order, which universities can provide to prohibit you and the person who harmed you from directly contacting each other. You may also be able to request that your university change your campus housing or schedule.

To receive these accommodations, you’ll need to file a confidential report or a formal complaint with your university, according to Know Your IX.

Katie Shipp, a partner at Marsh Law Firm, advises students to find their university’s Title IX policy, identify the Title IX coordinator and report their assault. “That’s something that people should be looking into and exactly what they have to do in order to make a complaint that’s going to trigger an investigation.”

PAAR can also inform survivors of their rights under Title IX, perhaps with a clearer and more trauma-informed approach than a university, said Susie Balcom, a PAAR advocate.

“Sometimes, there’s more trust between us and the students that do come because we’re not working for the university,” Balcom said. “We can answer more nuanced questions, like, ‘What does this legalese information mean?’ — where the Title IX office can’t really step into that space as much.”

Under Title IX, universities can consider evidence beyond what could be collected in a hospital. Journal entries, correspondence, text messages, photos and any witnesses willing to corroborate the report also matter.

Because memory, especially at the time of trauma, can be vulnerable, legal experts recommend that students record everything they remember about the incident.

If you pursue a formal complaint, Shipp said what follows is “a court-like proceeding.”

  • Your Title IX office will interview you, and the perpetrator will get a summary of the allegations and have the ability to speak with counsel.
  • The Title IX office will interview the perpetrator.
  • The Title IX office will decide whether to start an investigation after which the university may bring in a third-party investigator.
  • A hearing will take place at which each party is eligible to have an adviser, who can be an attorney. At this time, you may be subjected to cross-examination.
  • The university will issue a decision and provide an opportunity to appeal. If the perpetrator is found responsible, the university may impose sanctions like withholding of a degree, expulsion from school, a written apology letter or a suspension.

Under current Title IX guidelines, schools are not required to respond to complaints that occur outside of campus, Shipp said. There is also no time limit, so the Title IX process can be drawn out. The Biden administration recently proposed additional changes to how complaints are handled, which are currently under review.

Seeking mental and emotional health support

Participating in therapy or counseling can help you begin to process your experience and heal. It’s common for survivors to feel a variety of emotions after their trauma or to experience anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the state of Pennsylvania, survivors of sexual abuse who are over the age of 18 can apply to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to receive up to $5,000 in counseling services — without having to report to the police.

PublicSource spoke with survivors, advocates, lawyers, police and university officials to investigate the prevalence of sexual violence on Pittsburgh college campuses and reveal gaps in how universities and the criminal justice system protect students and serve survivors. Read more of its “The Red Zone” series here.