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Penn State Sees Spike in Sexual Assaults, Drug Offenses

by on March 06, 2014 11:43 AM

Recent headlines regarding sexual assaults involving Penn State students have caught the attention of the Penn State Board of Trustees.

Members raised questions Thursday about recent reports of sexual assaults involving students during the Finance, Business and Capital Planning Committee meeting at The Hershey Lodge.

The issue was raised as Office of Physical Plant Associate Vice President Ford Stryker and Police and Public Safety Assistant Vice President Steve Shelow gave a review of public health and public safety at Penn State.

Specifically, committee Chairman Mark Dambly says the recent news reports of sexual assaults make the rate of that particular crime appear "higher than I would like to see" and asked what the university is doing to combat the issue.

Last weekend, State College police arrested an out-of-state man in town for State Patty's Day for allegedly entering a female student's apartment and indecently assaulting her. Police say the victim did not know her attacker prior to the incident.

Shelow says overall serious crime has declined at Penn State, matching a national trend. However, he says part of the increase in sexual assaults reported is due to raised awareness created by the investigation of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State football coach convicted of sexually abusing boys.

Beyond that, Shelow says the university has seen "sharp increases" in sexual assaults where the victim and assailant know each other prior to the assault.

"It is a woefully underreported crime, as all of you know," Shelow says. "We may only know about 15 percent of what's actually occurring. "We think there are strategies in place which we can continue to focus on to lessen the frequency in which those occurs."

One of those strategies is a Sexual Assault Prevention course instructed earlier this month by Penn State University Police Department. The course, which was offered to all students, faculty and staff, highlighted prevention tips, victim resources and reviewed state laws that define a sexual assault.

Committee member Barbara Doran asked what factors determine whether a reported offense develops into a criminal case.

First, Shelow says, the victim must decide if she wants to pursue a criminal investigation or simply seek out medical services. Next, police conduct an investigation. Finally, the district attorney's office determines if criminal charges should be filed.

"It's a collaborative effort between the victim, police and prosecuting attorney," Shelow says. At the same time, Shelow acknowledged victims' reluctance to pursue criminal charges, as "the criminal justice system doesn't have reputation of being friendly to sexual assault victims."

Additionally, Shelow says drug activity and arrests seems to be increasing at Penn State with marijuana and other drugs, but university police are serious when it comes to enforcement.

"We are pretty aggressive," he says. "And I think that's the right strategy, frankly."

In other news, the committee approved a room and board increase for the 2014-15 school year inside The Hershey Lodge on Thursday. The matter will go before the full board on Friday.

The committee approved a 4.2 percent increase in room and board fees to cover an increase in costs and 10-year plan to renovate student housing at University Park.

The increase equates to $200 a semester, bringing the total to $4,885 for a double room and meal plan in 2014-2015.

"With the proliferation of off-campus facilities we really need to upgrade our facilities in order to remain competitive," says Gail Hurley, associate vice president for Auxiliary and Business Services.

The 10-year housing plan includes renovating all of East and Pollock halls, or a total of 6,300 beds, focusing on two buildings per year.

Despite the increase, Hurley says Penn State ranks 12th compared to 16 other schools, including Big Ten universities.

Hurley says Penn State is attempting to implement gradual tuition costs. At the same time, expenses have increased with food costs up 2 percent and property expenses up 7.2 percent to $4.3 million.

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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