Colleges grappling with response to sexual assaults

Meghan Cox, a senior from Coopersburg, Pa., addresses students at West Chester University during a rally to draw attention to sex assaults on campus.
Meghan Cox, a senior from Coopersburg, Pa., addresses students at West Chester University during a rally to draw attention to sex assaults on campus. (ED HILLE / Staff)
Posted: May 12, 2014

The rally started with one voice. Then others at West Chester University - where sexual-assault reports have shot up in recent weeks - stopped amid the frenzy of finals Tuesday to listen.

"My name is Shannon," Shannon Bertoni yelled as the group around her began to swell from a dozen to nearly 75. "I, like far, far too many of you, am one in five."

She was citing a statistic about the women who will be sexually assaulted during college, a statistic that received increased attention last month when the White House put heat on universities to combat the problem and issued new guidelines for doing so.

That step, experts say, was spurred in part by an unprecedented wave of student activism like that seen last week in West Chester. Pressure from students - coupled with 2011 guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on legal obligations involving sexual assault - has led to widespread and ongoing changes in how colleges handle the cases, experts say.

"I've seen more movement on this issue in the last six months than I've seen in the last 20 years," said Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

The protest in West Chester, followed by a vigil that organizers said drew about 50 people, followed a rash of assault reports on campus. In one month, students received five e-mails about cases including one in which a 61-year-old man grabbed a student in the library and one in which a woman was sexually assaulted by a man she didn't know in a campus residence.

Though alarming to students - including several at the rally who described looking over their shoulders at night or fearing even short walks alone - many have said the spike could be a sign that more women are reporting incidents.

Speaking out

That's the trend nationally on college campuses, as high-profile cases of victims speaking out inspire other students, according to Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, in Wayne.

"Often, we would talk about sexual violence and you would see someone talking about it, and their face is blurred out or their voice is distorted," she said. "But now we are seeing students saying this is my name, and this is what happened to me, and I don't want it to happen to anyone else."

Katie Lyons decided to attach her name to her story after sharing it publicly for the first time at Tuesday's rally and seeing the encouragement from students and her family.

Lyons, a West Chester University junior, says she was sexually assaulted last year in her dorm by a man who lived down the hall and came into her room after she had been out drinking. She said he kissed and groped her while she was unable to stop him, then left when his phone rang.

After, she fixated on one question: "If he didn't get that phone call, would he have left?"

Lyons said she reported the incident to campus police, but her case didn't result in criminal charges, and the male student was only moved to another dorm. She said university officials told her it would be difficult to unequivocally prove her claim because the man denied the allegations, and she acknowledged she had been drinking heavily.

The experience, she said, left her bitter and convinced talking was pointless.

"I just had it in my mind that it was my fault," she said. "And what was the point of sharing if it was my fault?"

On Tuesday, she stepped to the center of the circle.

"This is the best way that I've been able to heal, is to tell people, and to know more people on campus are supporting me," she said, hands fidgeting at her waist. "I don't need to be ashamed."

West Chester University spokeswoman Pam Sheridan said Friday she could not discuss the specifics of Lyons' case. In an e-mail, Sheridan said she was sure the university makes every effort to determine the truth when sexual-assault allegations are lodged. But she deferred to a page of the university's sexual misconduct policy when asked to elaborate on the school's practices in such cases.

That policy details a fact-finding investigation that could lead to a disciplinary process including a judicial hearing. Criminal proceedings are separate.

Sheridan said the university in 2012 made substantial changes so the policy would be more victim-oriented, including adding the fact-finding to allow students in many cases to avoid testifying in a courtroom-like setting.

She said more changes would be made in response to the White House report.

Paying attention

Across the country, Kiss said, arguably every university in the country is considering its own changes.

The federal government has made clear it is watching. This month, the Department of Education issued a list of 55 schools being investigated for possible mishandling of sexual-assault and harassment cases. The local schools are Temple University, Pennsylvania State University, Swarthmore, Princeton, and Franklin and Marshall College.

The White House has recommended, among other things, that all institutions begin regular surveying of students; teaching "bystander intervention," including engaging men in stopping bad behavior; and drafting comprehensive responses for when a sexual assault is reported.

"Thanks to the work of the students and what the administration is doing, we know that colleges are paying attention now," Berkowitz said. "The question is going to be how they react."


tnadolny@phillynews.com

610-313-8205

@TriciaNadolny

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