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The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

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The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

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Christmas trees in Schenley Plaza.
‘Christmas Day at Pitt’ gathers community for free meals, clothes and gifts
By Spencer Levering, Senior Staff Writer • December 8, 2023

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Christmas trees in Schenley Plaza.
‘Christmas Day at Pitt’ gathers community for free meals, clothes and gifts
By Spencer Levering, Senior Staff Writer • December 8, 2023

‘A Band-Aid on our concerns’: One year after the alleged assault in the Cathedral

Pamela Smith | Contributing Editor
Protesters gather outside the Cathedral of Learning in response to sexual violence on campus on Oct. 7, 2022.

One year after the sexual assault in the Cathderal, students say the University seemed to only put a “Band-Aid” on their concerns. 

On Oct. 6, 2022, Pitt police released a crime alert describing an alleged sexual assault that occurred at midday in a stairwell of the Cathedral of Learning. Pitt students took to the Cathedral the next day, demanding Pitt take action to improve campus safety.

Following the protests last year, Dean of Students Carla Panzella promised some of the student leaders and protest organizers that she would set up a meeting with them to discuss changes the University could make. Additionally, the University hosted a student town hall following the protests to further discuss solutions for sexual assault on campus. 

During the town hall and in meetings with Dean Panzella, students suggested a number of changes, including more cameras on campus, a mandated one-credit course about sexual assault, more survivor support programs and widespread changes to the Title IX office. However, the only notable change from the University was a shift in responsibility from administrators. Dean Panzella who stood at the forefront of the University’s response to student concerns, has now transferred the responsibility from her jurisdiction in Student Affairs to the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion — a much smaller department within the University. This decision left many student concerns about the Cathedral incident still not addressed. 

Now, one year later, those same student leaders like Megan Sharkey, who were promised meetings and tangible results, said they feel the University has “deprioritized” and shifted responsibility away from University leaders who once gave “hope” to students as the “face of the movement.” 

As Sharkey, president of Take Back the Night, reflects on her demands for change, she said she is unable to see how University administrators, who once gave her hope, fulfilled their promises.

“That was promising in the moment, but I genuinely cannot pinpoint any real changes the University made after it or if Title IX [Office] has really changed to any capacity,” Sharkey said. 

When asked how she felt about the student meetings last year, Dean Panzella said they were productive — a sentiment not felt by Sharkey or from the other student leaders in attendance.

“Last year’s meetings with students were productive,” Panzella said. “We explored challenges and listened to how the students were feeling to help identify possible solutions. We were able to distill pressing issues into nuanced and actionable items.”

Sharkey attended the first meeting held by Dean Panzella, but did not realize that she was invited back. The University said Sharkey was on the distribution list for invitations. She also did not receive any specific invite from either Dean Panzella or the OEDI to follow up on changes the University has made, and at one point she wondered if it was because she “said something wrong.”

“I can’t help but wonder if because I wasn’t at the second one I got booted from communication, their email list, but also I’m the president of Take Back the Night, I’m a student leader — I feel I should have been notified of that,” Sharkey said. 

Sharkey noted that she sent follow up emails to the University asking for meeting notes from the ones she did not attend and updates on any progress, but received no response.

Carrie Benson, the director of sexual violence prevention and education at the OEDI, said she was unable to attend the early meetings with Panzella due to parental leave, and at the first meeting she did attend, Panzella shifted the work entirely to Benson’s department. 

Panzella said the decision to shift the work from Panzella’s department of Student Affairs to the OEDI was “mutual.”

“This shift moved the work to the experts in this area at Pitt,” Panzella said. “OEDI is uniquely positioned, with the engagement of other stakeholders and their programs, resources and staff expertise to address these important issues at Pitt.”

Sharkey, who now works with Benson and participates on a sexual assault prevention task force, said she did not recall ever receiving a specific invitation or update from Dean Panzella that the work was no longer being handled by her — something that Sharkey contends is a “disheartening” choice Panzella made.

“That’s super jarring, because I was sitting next to the dean [in the first meeting], and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, here’s a person who wants to make a change and is in this position that can serve us in a way,’ and it does hurt to know that she kind of removed herself from the conversation,” Sharkey said. “It’s just disheartening to hear.”

The shift in responsibilities from Student Affairs to OEDI also left some explicit student concerns to fall through the cracks. 

Benson said she herself never asked for more cameras to be installed on campus, a request made by students in the town hall and in a petition

“I personally did not,” Benson said. 

The University of Pittsburgh Police Department declined to provide the exact number of cameras or security guards on campus for safety reasons. They additionally declined to specify when and by how many the University increased the number of campus security guards. 

“We can confirm that we have permanently increased the number of guards present in the Cathedral of Learning, as well as the number of cameras across campus,” the University of Pittsburgh Police Department said. 

Pitt police also did not specify if guards received specific sexual assault training following the assault in the Cathedral last year.

“Our security guards are advised to contact dispatch immediately,” the police department said. “Our guards are trained to observe and report all suspicious activity and to ensure that only authorized persons are admitted to specific areas. Pitt police officers all receive sexual assault response training, and Pitt police detectives have advanced response training.”

Other concerns brought up by students last year including mandating prevention education courses for all years at Pitt have also not been implemented. Benson added that it’s something the “University can look into.”

Benson said in her role as director, she sees prevention falling more in the realms of “education.” 

She noted after taking over the workload from Student Affairs, her department has added one full-time staff member, one part-time prevention educator and eight more peer student educators.

Alexa Pierce, who works as one of those peer student educators, said the University hiring more people will help address some of the concerns about Title IX, but she understands why students are still frustrated.

“It is frustrating that people were hired after the fact,” Pierce said. “Compared to last year, there are a lot more full time employees working on centralized intervention now, so I feel like that’s a good thing, but always unfortunate that it had to happen after the fact.”

Benson outlined some of the additional education programs her department has implemented, including obtaining a $500,000 seed grant to fund projects such as Circle Up, which seeks to create safe spaces and add more support for survivors on campus. 

The OEDI declined to provide the operating budget both Benson’s Department of Sexual Violence Prevention and Education and the Title IX office have, or if the $500,000 seed grant is being directed towards the Title IX office — a funding request that students also have demanded since last year. 

Sharkey said the lack of quantified public change and transparency is “jarring” and wished the University would fulfill the many promises they made during the town hall and meetings with Dean Panzella instead of putting them on the “backburner.”

“Negating that opportunity [for transparency] from students this year, it kind of feels like things are just swept under the rug,” Sharkey said.

A previous version of this story noted that Megan Sharkey did not get invited back to meetings with Dean Panzella, after clarification the University indicated that she was on the distribution list for invitations and Sharkey said she missed the emails. Sharkey also sent follow ups to the University, but received no response.  The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Pitt News regrets this error.

About the Contributor
Punya Bhasin, Assistant News Editor
Punya is an aspiring investigative reporter, and has worked at The Pitt News since her first semester freshman year. She has reported on Presidential rallies, protests, Covid-19 on campus and a number of stories aimed at holding the University accountable.

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