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Penn State Battles Issues of Sexual Assault & Racism

by on January 16, 2015 6:40 AM

Penn State Vice President of Student Affairs Damon Sims doesn’t shy away from controversial topics.

Over the past several months, he and his staff have been waist deep in the thorny issues of racism and sexual assault in an attempt to make the university a more inclusive and safe home for its students.

Sims briefed the Penn State Board of Trustees Committee on Academic Affairs and Student Life on Thursday, outlining some preliminary results from the recently-created Sexual Assault Task Force and describing the actions taken by Penn State in response to issues of racism on campus.

Formed over the summer, the Sexual Assault Task Force gathered input from students and faculty to create a report with recommendations for how Penn State can better serve victims of sexual assault.

“We found that are sometimes insufficient needs at our [commonwealth] campuses to meet the needs of victims,” Sims said. “We also quickly realized that there is no central coordination for these resources, or that the oversight that exists is not sufficient.”

While University Park offers “fairly robust” services to sexual assault victims, smaller campus often lack these resources and the connection to their local communities that the main campus has with State College and local law enforcement.

One of the primary suggestions that the task force advocates is the creation of a central office under the banner of Student Affairs which will coordinate educational and support services on the topic of sexual assault at Penn State’s various campuses. As part of this new office, Sims also said the report recommends mandatory training on sexual assault for all university employees and educational programming on preventing sexual assault for all students.

The office of Student Affairs would also handle allegations of sexual assault in a more sensitive way.

Under the current system, alleged victims and perpetrators are brought together for a joint hearing, which often leads to a “confrontational” environment. The task force suggests moving to an “investigative model” where a qualified investigator would interview alleged victims, perpetrators and witnesses separately and then report back to authorities.

“We need to do all this fully understanding – and it’s important to hear this – that if we do it well, the number of reports of sexual misconduct in the near future should be expected to increase,” Sims said. “We will be raising awareness and inviting action … since all the research shows that this is a grossly underreported offense.”

Sims will present the task force’s report to Penn State President Eric Barron on Friday. It will be released to the public sometime in the future. Sims expects to come back to the Board of Trustees with more research and suggestions in March.

Sims also spoke to efforts of the Penn State administration to curb incidents of racism and encourage civility and understanding in the university community.

Numerous Penn State students took part in a demonstration near the end of the last semester to protest against the police shooting that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO., which is believed by many to have been racially-motivated.

“The demonstrations on campus were well-conducted, but in reaction to those demonstrations there was some chatter on social media that was far less appealing,” Sims said.

Sims and Barron issued a call for civility in response to those racist remarks, but their efforts didn’t stop there. Sims has since been involved in organizing numerous events bringing together Black student leaders to discuss their concerns and experiences as people of color at Penn State.

Sims says they relayed shock and dismay at the racist remarks on social media, which gave them “the sense that they are not welcome in our community.” Sims said university administrators are now working on efforts to promote inclusivity and to offer counseling to students who feel marginalized because of their race.

Professor Wanda Knight, who is also president-elect of the Penn State Forum on Black Affairs, spoke to trustees about her own experiences and explained that racism is not only impacting students.

She related a story about a time she was jogging in State College, when someone yelled “I hate black people” at her. Another instance she described was even more vitriolic, and more dangerous.

“Members of a fraternity harassed me, circling my car and making sexually-explicit and racist comments,” Knight said. “One threw a rock at my car. There were about 15 people involved.”

Knight says she is working with local government officials to create a committee to address issues of racism in State College.

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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