Pitt hosts student town hall to discuss safety, sexual assault on campus


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Students gather at a protest against sexual violence outside of the Cathedral of Learning Friday on Oct 7.

By Alexandra Ross, Senior Staff Writer

Increased police presence and restricted building access are not the answer to sexual violence on campus, according to Katie Emmert. 

“These solutions fail to adequately address sexual violence on campus and will inevitably target marginalized communities,” Emmert said, reading from an open letter she and other Pitt students wrote to the University. “Constant surveillance and security are not the answer. However, we do recognize the pain, frustration, and desperation that prompted these requests.”

Emmert, a sophomore political science and law, criminal justice and society major, read the letter at a student town hall event Wednesday afternoon. The letter demands Pitt believe sexual assault survivors, provide sexual assault prevention education, improve University resources for survivors and more.

Student Government Board, Student Affairs, Pitt Police and the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion hosted the town hall about safety and sexual assault at Pitt in the 7th floor auditorium of Alumni Hall from 4-6 p.m. The town hall was also available to students via a Zoom webinar.

Pitt Police released a crime alert on Oct. 6 describing an alleged sexual assault in the Cathedral of Learning three days earlier. Pitt students took to the Cathedral of Learning the next day, demanding Pitt take action to improve campus safety. 

Chief of Police James Loftus, Gender Discrimination and Title IX Response Manager Zach Davis, Sexual Assault Facilitation and Education Peer Leader Meenu Ramasamy, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Compliance, Investigations, and Ethics Laurel Gift and Director of Student Conduct Matt Landy made up the town hall’s panel. Students asked the panel about sexual assault prevention programs on campus, academic accommodations for survivors, supporting survivors who do not report to Title IX, updates on the investigation of the Cathedral of Learning assault, and more. Loftus did not have any updates regarding the assault at the town hall. 

Ryan Young, liaison to the diversity and inclusion committee for the Student Government Board, moderated the panel, and Dean of Students Carla Panzella and SGB President Danielle Floyd gave opening and closing remarks. In addition to about 100 students — including both the in-person audience and the Zoom webinar — several administrators attended, including Kenyon Bonner, vice provost for student affairs, Clyde Pickett, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, and Jay Darr, associate dean of students for wellness. Students could also speak to counseling clinicians and representatives from Pittsburgh Action Against Rape in person. 

A student attending via Zoom asked what Pitt is doing to prevent sexual assault and how Pitt leadership utilizes experts in sexual assault response and prevention. Davis emphasized the work of the Office for Prevention and Education and SAFE peer educators, both of which provide resources for survivors and educational programming. For example, the Office for Prevention and Education offers SETPoint training, which emphasizes personal empowerment through coaching and mentoring. 

“Beyond self defense, it’s really important to also understand how to find your voice in those situations — how to speak up and say no, how to be a good bystander, also understanding what your options might be,” Davis said. 

Students asked Loftus about how Pitt Police ensures the safety and fair treatment of students of color while increasing police presence on campus in response to the recent sexual assault. Loftus said the Pitt police do lots of training, in part because they are less busy when students leave for the summer, which includes anti-racial bias training. 

Loftus said lack of trust in police is a “shared problem” but a “one-way responsibility.” According to him, trust and dialogue between police and the community is more important than ever.

“Now, where people need those conversations the most, they need to be able to trust and rely and they need to understand that if someone walks up to them… wearing a uniform… that they can have an open dialogue,” Loftus said. “We’re a long way from that in policing in the United States.” 

Rachel Puckett, a senior information science major, asked whether fraternities and sororities must complete sexual assault prevention training. Davis responded that the Office of Prevention and Education does a dialogue series with Greek life and is more heavily involved with the sorority population “per their request.” Ramasamy said she has seen an influx of fraternities and sororities signing up for SAFE presentations. 

Puckett said she was “very unsatisfied” with the panel’s answer and asked for a “yes or no” on whether sexual violence education is mandatory for Greek life. Davis said it is not. Puckett also asked whether Interfraternity Council President Michael Liu will face consequences for a controversial statement on sexual assault that he posted to the IFC Instagram account last week. Davis said he could not share any information about a student’s conduct record due to confidentiality, and Landy said Puckett, as a Pitt student, has the right to file a conduct referral against another student. 

Puckett said Greek life should be targeted in sexual assault prevention because it is “built on rape culture.”

“Specifically, sorority and fraternity — like, it’s built on rape culture, and so I don’t understand why this isn’t being targeted, why they’re not, like, there’s not necessary training,” Puckett said. 

Sharon Bennett, a junior neuroscience major, asked a question about a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, in which a University spokesperson said finding qualified advisers for Title IX investigations has been “challenging” and the office is facing “staffing concerns” as sexual assault reports on campus rise. Bennett asked the panel if the adviser shortage is due to lack of funding or qualified personnel. 

Davis said changes to Pitt’s Title IX policy in 2020, due to revised Department of Education regulations related to Title IX, require live hearings — including cross-examination of the accuser. However, because the accuser and accused are never required to interact, Davis said the office may need advisors present for the hearing to represent their party. Davis recognized that the University can struggle to retain such advisors, but generally speaking, he said this struggle is “minimal” in the grand scheme of things. 

“The need for University-provided advisors, while hard to obtain, is very minimal in the broader stroke — the types of reports we’re receiving, the types of resolution procedures we’re able to provide at the University,” Davis said. 

Bennett also asked if the University would consider implementing a mandatory course on sexual violence prevention, similar to the anti-Black racism course Pitt created in 2020. Ramasamy said one of her fellow SAFE Peer Educators is working with Carrie Benson, senior manager for prevention and education at the Title IX office, to develop a one-credit course of that nature. Ramasamy later told The Pitt News that the course is a very recent idea that is currently just in a research stage. 

“I do want to reiterate it is very much a new idea so it is not something [about which] we have talked to too many people like the administration yet,” Ramasamy said.

Eva Steele and Gayatri Gupta-Casale from Project Healing Sideways, a club which seeks to support survivors and allies of intimate partner violence, shared a statement on behalf of their organization. Steele, the founder and chairperson of PHS, said Pitt needs to shoulder the burden of providing sufficient resources and support to survivors of sexual violence. 

“While our organization serves as a community of support, the burden of lifting survivor voices should not fall on completely student-run groups such as our own, or survivors,” Steele said. 

About an hour and a half into the town hall, Tom Barnes, a junior social work and history major, criticized the panelists’ responses. Barnes said the panelists kept describing systems already in place at Pitt, while students believe those systems don’t work. 

“Most of us don’t go [to Title IX] because they don’t believe it works,” Barnes said. “You need to be transparent… about what you do to improve these systems and make them more effective, because for how prevalent sexual assault is on this campus, from every process and mechanism you describe, I know not one person who’s ever used them.”

Puckett said the panelists’ answers throughout the town hall focused too much on how Pitt responds to sexual violence and not enough on how the University works to prevent it from happening, outside of educational training.

“We’re talking a lot about, you know, how to clean up the aftermath of a sexual assault; we have the resources to talk to someone and stuff,” Puckett said. “But like, I’m just not seeing a lot of stuff besides some sparse education happening, some sparse conversations happening.”

Panzella said while students may not have received answers to all their questions at the town hall, the University heard their concerns, and when the panel didn’t have a perfect answer it helped the administration recognize where Pitt can improve. 

“There are clearly areas of improvement and growth and gaps and our panel may not be able to answer every single question, but we are here, and we have invited campus administrators so that they can listen to you and hear — because in your questions, in your frustration with not getting the answers, we understand where the gaps are,” Panzella said.