By Mary Kate McGrath - October 21, 2019
In 2019, Pennsylvania passed a law requiring stronger sexual assault reporting on campus, giving colleges and universities one year to develop online reporting systems to receive complaints about sexual assault from students, faculty, and staff, according to the Associated Press. Reports, including anonymous submissions, must be investigated, according to the college or university campus policy, which the law also requires schools to create. In addition to improving the way Title IX cases are managed on campus, lawmakers hope the new bill will provide insight on the scope of sexual assault on campus, and allow safety managers to take targeted action. According to Governor Tom Wolf, the law is the first of its kind in the United States, and state legislators hope the bill will provide a helpful outline for other states looking to address the issue.
Governor Wolf has been a strong advocate for Title IX reform on campus, starting the “It’s On Us” campaign. “It’s On Us” aims to bring together college or university presidents, superintendents, administrators, faculty, students, families, as well as community members, to reframe the discussion around sexual violence and pledge to be part of the solution, as per the organization’s website. In 2016, Governor Wolf established a grant program allowing colleges and universities to apply for up $30,000 in competitive funding to address sexual assault on campus.
The “It’s On Us” grant funds can be put toward a variety of programs or activities, including campus-wide training for students, faculty, or staff, campaigns to raise awareness and understanding of the reporting process, resources for sexual assault surivivors on campus, or efforts to improve data on sexual assault on the federal or state level. During the first year of the program, Pennsylvania awarded 36 higher-education institutions grants, and in 2019, 38 colleges were awarded nearly a million dollars of funding. Given the statewide commitment to creating a better support system for victims of sexual assault, it’s not a surprise that leaders are establishing the first significant legislative agenda to tackle the issue in the country.
Pennsylvania’s proactive approach to addressing sexual assault on campus is unique, and one of the most comprehensive plans to address what has proven to be a difficult, complex issue for campus safety managers.
In October, a new survey of campus sexual assault in the United States found alarming rates of violence on college or university campuses, with few victims reporting abuse to authorities. The survey found that more than 1 in 4 women from 33 large universities experienced sexual assault while they were students. Fewer than 30% of women, who were assaulted by force or while unable to consent, filed a report with the school or sought counseling from their schools. Common reasons for those who did not report an assault included fear of retaliation, belief the situation could be handled alone or did not merit formal or institutional support, or fear of being shamed.
The survey, which was conducted by the Association of American Universities, was the largest of its kind conducted on college or university campuses, as per Mother Jones. A similar study conducted in 2015 which surveyed students from many of the same institutions yielded similar data. Over the four years since the first study was published, rates of sexual assault on the 21 campuses which participated in both studies increased. Many factors could contribute to the rise - the #MeToo movement, for example, has helped dispel stigma about coming forward. The conclusion found that undergraduate sexual assault is common among women, men, and transgender or nonbinary students. Schools need to make active measures to prevent situations from occurring and offer adequate support to students who are victims of sexual violence.
Pennsylvania’s “It’s On Us” program offers a template for state’s looking to take a more proactive approach to preventing sexual assault on campus. According to the organization’s website, participants take a pledge to better understand the systemic cause of sexual assault on campus, as well as take action to prevent these situations from occuring. The pledge states “It’s On Us” to:
“The proposed legislation aims to institutionalize the goals of the “It’s On Us” initiative, taking major steps to eradicate sexual violence from college and university campuses across the state. I want to make sure that everybody in the United States and in the world knows that, if you come to college or universities in Pennsylvania, this is a place that you can feel free of the threat of sexual violence,” Wolf said in a news conference. The legislature passed as a three-page portion of a 45-page education policy bill which passed a vote from state lawmakers, requiring college and university campuses to institute a variety of Title IX practices.
Campus safety managers are required to investigate all reports submitted as part of the new reporting system. The law also stipulates that colleges and universities must excuse students or witnesses who report sexual assault be excused from violation’s of the school’s conduct policy on the use of drugs or alcohol. In many scenarios, students may be hesitant to come forward about sexual violence if the situation occured in a social situation involving underage use of substances, and it’s important to communicate that there will be no repercussions for submitting such a report.
Legislators and “It’s On Us” leaders in Pennsylvania stressed the importance of anonymous reporting as part of a campus safety plan. According to Tracey Vitchers, executive director of the “It’s On Us” campaign, victims tend to report an assault more quickly when it can be done anonymously, versus when they report it in person, according to AP News. Vitchers told the publication that online, anonymous reportings systems are considered an “evidence-based best practice”, given how Gen Z students - those belonging to the demographic born between 1997 and 2010 - are more likely to seek support or information online, as per AP.
In many situations, students may be hesitant to come forward about an assault they’ve experienced, or information about another member of the campus community, for fear of retaliation. Many students feel embarrassment or shame, and are therefore hesitant to present critical safety information to campus officials. Leveraging technology to offer students a discrete, accessible tool to report sexual violence on campus will not only increase the number of reports, especially among a digitially-oriented generation of college students, but will also lead to more reliable information about assault on campus in the future.
Temple University in Pennsylvania launched an anonymous reporting system in 2017, while the University of Pittsburgh launched a system in 2016. Legislators are hoping other college and university campuses will join these schools in response to the bill in creating an online, anonymous submission system. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education will conduct an audit of its 14 universities to determine which schools have implemented an online, anonymous report system.
A two-way anonymous tip text texting system provides a discrete, reliable system for students to report an incident of sexual harassment. While instituting a system of this sort is a required practice in Pennsylvania, every college or university can benefit from having such a system. Not only will a tip-texting system promote campus safety, allowing officials to investigate all instances of sexual violence, it will also allow for officials to gather reliable data about assault on campus, creating a better argument for these support systems.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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