‘We demand change’: Students protest sexual assault on campus


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

A Pitt student speaks at a protest against sexual violence outside of the Cathedral of Learning Friday afternoon.

By Alexandra Ross, Senior Staff Writer

More than 100 students at a Friday afternoon protest demanded Pitt take action following a series of reported sexual assaults, chanting “take back our safety, take back our campus” and carrying signs with phrases such as “We demand change, we will not be silenced.” Some protestors stormed a blocked-off section of the Cathedral of Learning to show the University that they are serious about the issue.

Students organized the protest in response to a Thursday crime alert about an alleged sexual assault on campus, which is the third sexual assault crime alert Pitt Police have released this academic year. According to the crime alert, at approximately 4:20 p.m. Monday, a college-age man sexually assaulted a woman in a Cathedral stairwell then fled in an unknown direction. The crime alert described the suspect as a college-age thin Black male with short curly “buzz cut” hair, stubble facial hair and brown eyes. His estimated height is 5’ 8”–5’9”. 

Carrie Benson, the senior manager for prevention and education at Pitt’s Title IX office, said the University police department and Office of Civil Rights and Title IX are actively investigating and responding to the incident. 

“The University does not and will not tolerate sexual assault and misconduct on our campuses, and we will continue to prioritize the important work of fostering a learning environment where every member of our university community feels safe, respected and supported,” Benson said. 

A Pitt student who asked to remain anonymous said she started an online petition and planned the protest with other Pitt students on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media platform. The student said she wishes to stay anonymous because other protesters raised concerns about some of the demands — namely, increased police — and she did not wish to be associated with the demands personally. 

The petition, which garnered about 6,000 signatures by Friday evening, also asked the University to add security cameras to stairwells, bring back swipe access and increase accountability of perpetrators.

The anonymous student said following the string of reported sexual assaults this year and a drunken individual entering Litchfield Towers, it’s necessary that Pitts ups security measures on campus. 

“I just feel like it’s time that people like, do something about it, because it’s not an isolated incident,” she said. “There’s so many safety concerns.”

Photos: Students protest sexual violence on campus

Ted Fritz, vice chancellor for public safety and emergency management, said in a campus-wide email after the protest that patrols and presence of Pitt police and security have increased at the Cathedral and Community Programs Unit officers have been added to the site in response to the alert.

Not all protesters supported the concept of increased policing on campus, because they said police presence does not make students more safe and may even threaten the safety of Black and brown students. In addition, several speakers claimed Pitt Police did not adequately respond when they reported sexual assault. 

There were no organized speakers for the event, but while gathered on the Cathedral lawn, students stepped up to speak spontaneously. Student speeches centered on negative experiences with Pitt Police and the Title IX office after being assaulted, the need to hold perpetrators accountable, the persistence of sexual assault in Greek life, struggles with PTSD after surviving assault and more.

Ryan Walter said a white male sexually assaulted her on campus in October 2021 and Pitt Police did not release a crime alert — but five days later, they issued an alert about a sexual assault allegedly committed by a Black man. Based on her experience, Walter said she believes Pitt Police is not informing students about the extent of sexual violence on campus. 

“The fact that there have been three assaults reported by crime reports in the past [month] — there’s more than that that they’re not telling us about,” Walter said.

A Pitt spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Walter’s criticisms of the Pitt Police crime alert system. 

Fritz said Pitt’s approach to handling sexual assault cases is “victim-guided” and “trauma-informed.” 

“More than 80% of our officers are currently trained in crisis intervention, which includes a trauma-informed response,” Fritz said. “And we have a victim-guided process, which empowers those who report a crime to make decisions about how we proceed.”

James Loftus, chief of Pitt Police, said safety is the top priority of the police department. 

“The safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff is of paramount importance to the University and is the number one priority of the Pitt Police Department,” Loftus said.. “Our ongoing mission is to maintain a campus environment where everyone feels safe and welcome. The University is actively investigating this incident [on Monday].”

Protesters objected to the University putting on Homecoming 2022 festivities at the Cathedral this weekend, and using the building as a positive symbol in the wake of the alleged assault — for example, passing out T-shirts which riffed off the recent debate over the Cathedral’s nickname, Cathy. 

“‘Cathy or the Cathedral?’ It’s a crime scene,” a protester said. 

Protesters entered the Cathedral at about 3:15 p.m. Pitt Police officers and representatives of the offices of Student Affairs and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion told the students they needed to disperse from the middle of the Cathedral’s first floor. Pitt had closed off that section of the Cathedral earlier in the day — for the Blue & Gold Bash, one of Pitt’s homecoming events that night — but protesters entered anyway. 

Eventually, police informed protesters that if they did not leave the center of the first floor of the Cathedral by 3:45 p.m., they could face University sanctions. All protesters chose to leave the Cathedral, stand on the perimeters of the first and second floors or protest outside of the building. 

Sharon Bennett, a junior undeclared major who mediated between their fellow protesters and Pitt while in the Cathedral, said entering the building helped get the protesters closer to their goal of Pitt taking action against sexual assault. 

“Because of our protest tonight, we have been put in direct communication with Student Affairs, and we will most likely in the near future see action on this issue,” Bennett announced to the protesters, who cheered. 

Bennett later clarified to The Pitt News that Steven Anderson, associate dean and director of residence life, shared his personal contact information with them and said he wants to schedule a meeting with students to talk about their concerns. Bennett said they are looking for other students to join them in the meeting.

After hearing that some of their concerns were heard by the administration, most protesters left the Cathedral. However, about 20 or 30 stayed around the perimeter of the first and second floors, and as the Pitt marching band began playing on the steps of the Cathedral around 3:45 p.m., they left to stand among the band, holding up signs and chanting. More protesters eventually joined in the crowd below. 

“Yay, we have the marching band at a crime scene,” a protester yelled sarcastically. 

The marching band eventually left the Cathedral steps and protesters took their place, holding up signs reading “Pitt is okay with SA,” “You are not alone” and “We shouldn’t be scared to go to class.” Shortly after 4 p.m., the remaining protesters finally left the Cathedral, though some said they would return to continue their protest at the Homecoming Laser and Fireworks Show Friday night. 

Hope Karnes, a sophomore nursing major who leads Take Back the Night Pitt as the club’s president, said any survivors of sexual assault can come to Take Back the Night Pitt for help and resources. 

“If you need support, please reach out for support, reach out to our organization, reach out to the resources on our Instagram,” Karnes said. “Please do not do this alone.”

Click here for more information on resources for sexual assault survivors.