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Combating Sexual Assault on College Campuses

by on August 28, 2014 6:00 AM

As the new semester begins there are new challenges, new experiences and certainly things new college students need to be aware of including sexual assault.

Earlier this year a White House conference addressed a rising number of incidents of sexual assault at America's colleges and universities.

The issue took on a much higher profile with experts from across the country weighing in, including Vice President Joe Biden correctly stating that men "need to do their part" to prevent sexual assault.

The Justice Department even took an unprecedented step by releasing the names of 55 schools being investigated for their handling of these types of allegations. Schools on the list included major universities among them; Cal, USC, The University of Chicago, Florida State, Harvard, Michigan, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Princeton and Penn State.

This summer, after intense questioning of NCAA President Mark Emmert on Capitol Hill, the NCAA issued new guidelines concerning how athletic departments should handle allegations of sexual assault.

The guidelines state "Athletic departments must cooperate with but not manage, direct, control or interfere with college or university investigations into allegations of sexual violence ensuring that investigations involving student-athletes and athletics department staff are managed in the same manner as all other students and staff on campus."

People may argue that coaches or athletic directors should follow up with victims or the people accused, but the guidelines are in place for a reason. Coaches following up, regardless of the intent, certainly could be construed by victims as an attempt to pressure them. From the outside it may appear the coach is tampering with the victim's testimony.

The NCAA's new guidelines are to be applauded. Publicly outlining proper procedure brings attention to an issue that has remained in the shadows. The guidelines are a reaction to the issue but as a society we must recognize these issues are campus-wide and not limited to just athletes and athletic departments.

As reports of assault rise there are any number of contributing factors including alcohol and drugs. Alcohol consumption is a problem contributing to sexual assaults at our universities. Alcohol, late-night decisions and lack of clear communication create situations where impaired judgment and differing desired outcomes can lead to actions with life-altering consequences.

As for drug use, law enforcement people around the state and the country also report a sharp rise in the abuse of prescription drugs as well as heroin. That should be a huge wake-up call for universities dealing with both sexual assault and substance abuse.

But beyond substance abuse as a factor in sexual assault, there have also been dramatic structural changes in on-campus housing at Penn State. I'm not that old but in my college days if I wanted to visit a female friend's dorm in the evening, that friend had to either be with me or come down and sign me in.

A resident assistant was in the lobby of all-female dorms. The resident of the dorm had to show her key and identification to the R.A. Her visitor had to also show identification and sign in. Now a swipe of a resident's Penn State ID opens the door providing access to the building.

It's more efficient, but it doesn't put eyes on the people coming into and out of the building. If a student is visibly drunk the RA certainly is aware of the potential for trouble. When I was in college we were taking a very drunk female student home to her roommate. The RA kept us there until the roommate came down. Although we posed no threat, the RA recognized and looked into a potentially dangerous situation to insure that student's safety.

Co-ed dorms also put potential problems in the same building. A young man who comes home intoxicated can walk around his co-ed dorm pushing on doors. Sometimes people will fall asleep with their doors unlocked and now a female student may find an unknown drunk male in her room late at night.

I know that I sound like a grumpy old guy saying "it was better back in our day." That's not the point. In the 1950s not only were the dorms not co-ed but the female students were locked down after certain hours and were required to sign in with the dorm mother.

I'm not advocating we lock down students or bring back "dorm mothers", nor am I advocating we turn back the hands of time to the "good old days." I'm stating that technology may be cheaper and more efficient but it isn't always better. There is generally no technological equivalent to human intelligence with eyes and ears open to thwart potential problems.

Sexual assault on our campuses is a serious issue. There is no doubt that drugs and alcohol contribute to these problems. The response has to be multi-pronged: education, awareness, attacking substance abuse and a recognition that we need people stationed to lookout for potential trouble.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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