HARRISBURG — All Pennsylvania colleges must create online systems to take anonymous reports about sexual assault and they are now barred from punishing students for things like drug use or drinking if they report a sexual assault, under changes in the update to the state’s school laws passed as part of the state budget.
Pennsylvania is the first state in the nation to require colleges to offer online anonymous sexual assault reporting, said Tracey E. Vitchers, executive director of It's On Us, a national campaign combatting campus sexual assaults.
One proposal, championed by Republican Sen. Lisa Baker of Luzerne County and Democratic Rep. Dan Frankel of Allegheny County, requires post-secondary institutions to offer online, anonymous options for students to report sexual assaults. The other proposal, championed by Democratic Sen. Judy Schwank of Berks County, protects students reporting sexual assault from being disciplined for violating school drug, alcohol or other policies.
“This bipartisan effort gives a voice to survivors and witnesses to report sexual assaults and break the silence that’s too often part of campus culture,” Gov. Tom Wolf said. “Sexual assault must never be tolerated and the reforms in these new laws create a path for more legislative progress in the future.”
Vitchers said under federal law, if students identify themselves as the victim when making reports of sexual assaults, universities must contact the victim to determine if the victim wants police to be contacted.
If an anonymous report of sexual assault is made, the information wouldn’t require a report to police. In cases of anonymous reporting, the information can help university officials recognize when they are dealing with a problem on-campus, Vitchers said. For instance, the tips could help identify “hot spots” of sexual assault, she said.
“You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know about it,” Vitchers said.
People who are sexually assaulted are more likely to notify university authorities more quickly when provided the online reporting option. On average, it takes a sexual assault victim about 11 months before deciding to come forward and disclose what happened to college authorities, Vitchers said. Having access to online reporting has been shown to cut that average to about three months, she said. While Pennsylvania is the first state to mandate that colleges offer anonymous online reporting, many colleges already voluntarily offer it, she said.
The move to bar colleges from punishing students for alcohol or drug use if they report sexual assaults is also aimed at eliminating something that might discourage reporting, Schwank said.
The legislation makes it clear that not only is “victim-blaming immoral,” said Adrianna Branin, in Pennsylvania it’s now illegal.
Branin will be a senior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the fall. In March, she was awarded the national Biden Courage Award for intervening to stop a sexual assault on campus. Branin said she saw a group of at least six men groping a woman who was intoxicated. She confronted the men to get them to stop and then reported the incident to college authorities.
The Biden Courage Awards are named after former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill and are intended to recognize students, like Branin, who have actively worked to stop campus sexual assault.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.