Sexual assault on campuses becomes national focus


By Danielle Fox / Staff Writer

Student Government Board member Graeme Meyer knew something had to change after he and a group of students were held at gunpoint on the walkway to David Lawrence Hall at the end of the fall 2012 semester.

During the 2013 SGB election, Meyer ran on an initiative to improve communication between the Counseling Center, Pitt police and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police after a student becomes a victim of a violent crime — including sexual assault. Between 2012 and 2013, there were 17 forcible sex acts, including rape, sodomy, sexual assault with an object, indecent assault and non-forcible intercourse without consent reported on campus.

While a recent report by the White House indicates that 20 percent of female college students are sexually assaulted, which would appear to indicate that Pitt is faring well nationally, the report also states that only 12 percent of cases are reported. 

The University Counseling Center is located inside the Wellness Center in Nordenberg Hall and offers mental health services to graduate and undergraduate students. The center is staffed by psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists and trained graduate students.

Meyer’s goal is to improve procedures that help students who become victims of a violent crime. 

“[The police] informed us that the counseling was there, but there was no outreach from the office,” Meyer said. “Typically, victims aren’t willing to seek out help, so I thought there should be a better system for the police to notify the consulting center.”

According to Meyer, Pitt police and officers from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police do not have a procedure for alerting the Counseling Center about violent crimes that occur off campus.

“It should just be a standard,” Meyer said. “South Oakland is technically not University property, but in my eyes, it is still part of the campus.”

Sergeant Joe Gannon, an officer in the Sexual Assault and Family Unit of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police said he was not aware of the University’s Counseling Center.

Gannon said if the Pitt police are notified of a sexaul assault, they take the report and share it with the Pittsburgh Police Bureau.

“[Pitt police] may or may not turn around and notify the Counseling Center. I deal strictly with the police department,” Gannon said.

The University and the Pitt Police Department did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

Meyer isn’t alone in his push to combat sexual assault and violent crime on college campuses. In fact, the effort to bring about better services to victims of sexual assault is becoming a national focus. 

Nationwide fight

President Barack Obama identified sexual assault on college campuses as “deeply troubling” and signed a memorandum on Jan. 22 to establish the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

According to the memorandum, colleges and universities that receive federal aid must offer sexual assault services to their students. The schools are required to provide information about prevention and reporting procedures, adopt and publish grievance procedures to resolve sexual assault complaints, investigate reported assaults and take measures to prevent future occurrences.

“Reports show, however, that institutions’ compliance with these federal laws is uneven and, in too many cases, inadequate,” President Obama said in the memorandum.

His memorandum highlights what appears to be a nationwide trend on college campses. On the same day that Obama released the memorandum, the White House Council on Women and Girls released a report, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action.”

The report analyzes data on sexual assault and catalogues the Obama administration’s previous efforts while looking toward further action. According to the report, one out of five undergraduate women are victims of a completed or attempted sexual assault when they are a student. The report also said only 12 percent of these victims will go on to report the assault to law enforcement.

The report states: “Schools must adopt better policies and practices to prevent these crimes and to more effectively respond when they happen — both by holding offenders accountable and giving victims the help they need to physically and emotionally recover.”

A recent case that underscores the prominence of sexual assault on college campuses hits particularly close to home. 

The American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit organization that fights to preserve and defend individuals’ constitutional rights, has filed a Title IX complaint against Carnegie Mellon University on behalf of a female student who said her ex-girlfriend, who was also a CMU student, repeatedly sexually assaulted her.

Title IX is a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits federally-funded educational programs from sexual discrimination.

According to the complaint, CMU determined that the assailant had violated the university’s sexual assault policy but only made an effort to continue a pre-existing, mutual no-contact order that prohibited the two involved students from speaking to each other. The assailant was allowed to remain on campus.

Kenneth Walters, spokesperson for CMU, declined to comment on the ACLU’s complaint. 

Walters provided a statement from the university that said it would not comment on the matter in order to “protect the confidentiality of those involved.”

According to CMU’s statement, “The university takes very seriously its obligations under Title IX and its commitment to provide a safe and secure environment for its students and other members of the university community.”

Obama hopes the Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault will reduce the number of cases similar to those at CMU.

According to the memorandum, the task force will work with schools to ensure they are in compliance with sexual assault policies that were put in place by the federal government last year. 

In March, the White House established the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (Campus SaVE), which aims to prevent and reduce sexual assaults, as well as adjudicate reported assaults. The Task Force will also work to coordinate the efforts of colleges and the federal government in regard to responding to rape and sexual assault on campuses. When they’re finished in 2015, the task force will report their findings to Obama.

Mary Koch Ruiz, coordinator of Pitt’s Office of Sexual Assault Services in the Department of Student Affairs, said her office applauds the White House for creating the task force. 

Ruiz said the task force is a “good way to ensure that all colleges and universities provide a standard baseline of programs to help prevent sexual assault and offer services to assist victims.”  

Ruiz said Pitt did not need to make changes as a result of the act, as the University already met and exceeded Campus SaVe’s recommendations. 

Student-led initiatives

Erin Case, president of Pitt’s Campus Women’s Organization, a student organization that aims to represent the interests of women on campus, said it is great that Obama is raising awareness about sexual assault on campuses.

But Case, expressing her own opinion and not the opinion of CWO, said there is room for improvement in Pitt’s Office of Sexual Assault Services. 

Case said she felt that the office is understaffed, compared to other universities.

“Currently, we only have one person on faculty who deals with sexual assault cases. Yes, the rest of the consulting center helps [Ruiz] in that they will take in her consulting victims, but she is the only one who is in charge of running the peer educators, the one getting the calls in the middle of the night from victims,” Case said.

Ruiz said she got a lot of support from staff members and students who work to educate and support students regarding sexual assault. 

“All of our counselors and physicians are equipped and prepared to assist any student who reports a sexual assault,” Ruiz said. 

Ruiz cited Let’s RAVE, which stands for “Let’s Raise Awareness and Victim Empowerment,” as a peer-education outreach program that she manages. The peer educators must complete 16 hours of training and teach other students about sexual assault and other issues through workshops with awareness exercises and group discussions.

Ruiz said there are about 60 peer educators in the program. 

Although Case says she’s glad the University has programs such as Let’s RAVE, she has decided to take steps to work with the administration to further the fight against sexual assault.

Case said she has reached out to administrators such as Kathy Humphrey, vice provost and dean of students, about sexual assault issues on campus. She said the administration was receptive to ideas and open to discussion. 

“It’s not for lack of trying on their part. [The University] definitely sees that this is a problem and wants to work to improve it on our campus. It’s really just a matter of students trying to figure out where we can implement change,” Case said.

Meyer said he spoke with two members of the Pitt police force about establishing a reporting procedure for sexual assault cases. He said Pitt police were receptive to the idea, and he will pick the project back up later on this month.

“In general, we are a safe campus. That’s not the problem. This is more from the standpoint of how to improve services to students who are unfortunately victims of violent crimes,” Meyer said.