Pa. universities report higher numbers of sexual misconduct cases; advocates say that's a good sign

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) - Jesus Peña says his job is like walking a tightrope.

"One is saying it was nonconsensual, the other party is saying I thought it was consensual," the Kutztown University Title IX Coordinator said as he described what it's like to handle a campus sexual misconduct investigation.

"Usually there aren't any witnesses," Peña said. "Sometimes there's alcohol involved. So these are very, very difficult cases, and you want to be fair to both sides."

ABC27 filed right to know requests with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and obtained the sexual misconduct reports state-owned universities voluntarily submit to the Chancellor's Office. From 2015 to 2017, there was a 60.6 percent increase in reported incidents.

A spike in confidence, not crime

"You should hope your numbers will increase," Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape spokesperson Kristen Houser said.

Houser says victims of sexual assault or harassment typically do not report, so higher numbers of reported campus incidents usually mean a spike in confidence, not crime. 

"Students are perceiving the environment as being more responsive, that it's worthwhile to report, that they have faith that they will get the support that they need," Houser said. 

Keeping campuses safe

Creating an environment in which students feel comfortable reporting is easier said than done. PCAR, based on federal guidelines and best practices, recommends schools:

  • Partner with rape crisis centers
  • Offer continuous sexual misconduct education throughout students' college careers
  • Make information about how to report misconduct easily accessible
  • Offer amnesty (such as not citing students for underage drinking if alcohol was present at a reported incident)
  • Annual campus climate surveys to understand how students feel about the atmosphere surrounding sexual misconduct reporting and safety
  • Title IX coordinators who only focus on their Title IX responsibilities, instead doing several different jobs
  • Standardized sexual misconduct policies, language, definitions, and reporting across all campuses.

How do state schools measure up?

PASSHE's 14 schools include Bloomsburg, California University of Pennsylvania, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, and West Chester. They check off PCAR's first four recommendations.

However, their campus climate surveys are conducted every three to five years instead of annually. Many Title IX coordinators also fill other job responsibilities, and sexual misconduct policies, definitions, and reporting are different from campus to campus.

For example, in 2016 Edinboro University reported incidents of rape and sexual assault separately, but other schools put them into the same category. Kutztown, Mansfield, and West Chester report "sexual exploitation;" others don't. 

Indiana University of Pennsylvania is the only school out the 14 that does not submit sexual misconduct reports to the Chancellor. Those reports are not mandatory; IUP instead includes sex crime statistics in its annual safety report.

Victim advocates say sex crime statistics are less comprehensive because people who report to school administrators don't always report to police.

All PASSHE schools, including IUP, report the legally-required sex crime statistics, such as the numbers mandated under the Clery Act.

Why the numbers matter

"Well, data call tell you whether or not you're doing a good job," Houser said. "It makes it difficult to know what's really happening when people are comparing apples and oranges."

Houser says standardizing sexual misconduct reporting and policies across all campuses would go a long way toward improving safety.

But PASSHE Assistant Vice Chancellor, Chief EEO Compliance Officer, and Title IX Coordinator Victoria Sanders says there's a reason state-owned universities are reporting different things in different ways.

"We cannot have a one-size-fits-all way of approaching it," Sanders said. "We have 14 universities, with 14 presidents, with 14 councils of trustees, with 14 cultures. And so universities understand the culture of their institution, and really I think that dictates what they determine to be important in terms of how they report out that information."

"There are some areas where we think we might benefit if there was standardization of language in particular," Sanders added. "So that's something that we're actually looking at right now. We have not come to the consensus that we need to have one standard policy."

Fight for funding

Sanders says most PASSHE Title IX coordinators take care of responsibilities for multiple jobs. She would like to change that, but says the current state funding situation makes that goal hard to achieve.

PASSHE received either funding cuts or stagnant funding in the last seven out of ten budget years. The last three years have brought funding increases of five percent, two point five percent, and two percent, respectively.

"We would probably be able to do a lot more proactive work," Sanders said, referring to her desire to allow campus Title IX coordinators to focus only on their Title IX work. "And that, to me, would be the greatest benefit, so that we're not always being just responsive to something that's occurred."

Questions you should ask

If you're a parent or a prospective student, PCAR recommends asking about campus safety statistics, including sexual misconduct numbers.

Low numbers of reported incidents are a red flag because they can indicate students don't feel comfortable speaking up. A spike in numbers, like the situation over the last few years at PASSHE schools, can be an indicator the school is taking additional measures to create an environment conducive to reporting.

Houser recommends asking about both sexual assault and sexual harassment.

"We know campuses where verbal sexual harassment is highly tolerated also have higher rates of sexual assault," Houser said. "So that tells you something about the value of that community overall."

"Harassment is there to damage and intimidate someone," Houser added. "So when you look at the spectrum of offending behaviors, you're not going to find people that are perpetrating sexual assault and don't involve themselves in other kinds of harassing behaviors. If you are able to dehumanize another's all on the spectrum of offending. And when we allow people to get away with it, we're creating a slippery slope to give permission to all kinds of bad behavior."

Due process for the accused

Kutztown University Title IX Coordinator Jesus Peña says the process of investigating a report of sexual misconduct is a delicate balance of protecting victims' rights and due process for the accused. The burden of proof is on the university, not the respondent or the victim. There are hearings, and administrators who receive training determine whether to charge the accused. 

After a charge, there are additional hearings in which parties can testify. There are multiple opportunities for appeal, and students are not on the deciding panel because of the sensitive and complex nature of the cases. 

After several appeals, the president of the university could be the person who makes the final decision.

"We want to encourage the reporting of these incidents," Peña said. "But at the same time, we need to make sure that everyone's rights are being honored."

Opportunities for growth

PASSHE credits its comprehensive sexual misconduct education on its campuses for the spike in reporting. Sanders says those programs will continue, and so will efforts to reevaluate practices and procedures.

"The goal would be for [sexual misconduct] to never occur on campus," Sanders said. "We'd like to just eliminate it totally. But we know that's not going to happen. So the next best thing that we can do is to provide the education and to provide a level of comfort at our universities to let our students know that we care about them and that we are going to do the best thing that we can for them."

"We may not always get it right," Sanders added. "But we are always going to be assessing what we're doing, we're going to be making changes as changes are appropriate, and we want to hear [students'] voices in the process. And we're listening."


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