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Reporting Sexual Assault: Penn State's New Reporting Requirements And What They Mean For Victims

This week in a three-part series, WPSU is looking at reporting sexual assault in Centre County. Colleges across the country have built up a variety of resources for students. Today we take a look at how dealing with sexual assault has changed in recent years at Penn State.

Last fall, over three days, three different students told Penn State professor Charlotte Eubanks they’d been sexually assaulted.

The comparative literature professor says what one of them in particular told her has stuck with her like lead.

The student told her: "If I tell anybody eventually going to have to tell my mom and my dad, and I'm afraid they’ll pull me from college. And ultimately my education is more important to me than my body."

"We shouldn't be asking people to make those decisions," Eubanks said.

Eubanks teaches about 200 students every year. She says over the past few years maybe 15 have come to her about their sexual assaults.

Changes to university policy last year mean Eubanks and other professors, staff and resident assistants are mandated reporters of sexual assaults. Eubanks has to fill out an online report if a student tells her they’ve been assaulted. 

All those submissions from mandated reporters go to Paul Apicella, the new Title IX coordinator at Penn State.

Paul Apicella
Credit Emily Reddy / WPSU
Paul Apicella joined Penn State in December 2015 as the coordinator of the Title IX office.

"If it's not going through a confidential reporting channel," Apicella said, "we really would like to get that reported to my office so that we can manage these matters and really be a one-stop shop for someone who's unfortunately gone through one of these incidents.”

Apicella can get students academic accommodations and housing modifications. He can refer them to law enforcement or counseling, all while collecting better information on assaults at the university. The creation of Apicella’s position was recommended by the same task force that made Eubanks a mandated reporter. One of his biggest hurdles is teaching people that the sexual discrimination Title IX deals with goes beyond women’s college sports and can include sexual misconduct.

“It may be a central dilemma to this kind of work," Apicella said. "Because we can do the greatest work in the world, right? And we can be the most supportive, most trauma-informed, but if nobody knows to go there then it doesn't really matter.”

That’s why the Title IX office is changing its name to the Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response. It’s a mouthful, but Apicella hopes the new name will make what they actually do a lot clearer.

And he plans to do a lot of work on that “prevention” aspect.

"We need to get really good at crisis response, right?" Apicella said. "However, if that's the space we live in, we're not really doing our jobs, right? Because ideally what we really want to do is raise awareness, engage in some educational and some training efforts and reduce the overall occurrence of these incidences over time."

In a 2015 survey, more than one in four women undergrads at Penn State said they had been the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.

Students were most likely to talk about their sexual assaults, stalking or domestic violence incidents with a close friend.

For students looking for professional support that’s still confidential, there are a few options at Penn State. One is Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services or CAPS. Andrea Falzone heads up a group of 10 counselors there called the “Purple Team.”

Andrea Falzone
Credit Emily Reddy / WPSU
Andrea Falzone coordinates counseling services for survivors of sexual assault at Penn State's Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS.

"It's a team of clinicians that have a special interest and have training in working with survivors and are sensitive to the needs of survivors," Falzone said.

Normally, it can take weeks to get an appointment with CAPS, but students who’ve been sexually assaulted are guaranteed an appointment within 48 hours. While they’re not mandated reporters, Falzone says CAPS counselors do tell students their options.

"We operate from empowerment model so we do not push any service, resource, reporting," Falzone said. "We let the survivor decide. Because power and control has been taken away from them in a sexual assault and we really think it's important that they feel empowered to make decisions for themselves when they're ready." 

Another confidential resource is the Center for Women Students. The Center’s director, Peggy Lorah, says it has similar services to CAPS, but it’s easier to just drop in.

"So they can walk in our door and they can see one of our counselors typically the minute they walk in the door," Lorah said. "And if not they can see somebody by the end of that day."

While there’s a lot of overlap among these various offices, Lorah says they’re all necessary.

"My sadness is that there's more than enough work to go around for all of us," Lorah said. "You would think 'Oh, gosh if we had one place on campus where students could go and that was it what else could we possibly need,' but we need all kinds of places and all kinds of services because there is that kind of need."

Lorah says about 100 Penn State students a year report their sexual assaults in one of the many ways available to them. Despite all these resources, she says a much larger number of students never tell anyone.

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.
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