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'Believe them' | Penn State Schreyer Gender Equity Coalition hosts Double Red Zone sexual assault discussion

Gender Equity Coalition and South Halls Residence Life - Residents

Residents of Atherton Hall listen to the various presentations regarding the rise in sexual misconduct cases on and off campus and the resources available to them on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in University Park, Pa.

Penn State's Schreyer Gender Equity Coalition hosted "Double Red Zone" — a discussion about the recent rise in sexual assault cases in partnership with South Halls Residence Life in the Grandfather Clock Lounge of Atherton Hall Wednesday night.

The red zone is the time from the beginning of the fall semester to Thanksgiving when most sexual assaults happen due to the increased vulnerability of incoming students, according to Sacha Smith, the coalition's event and programming director.

Smith (sophomore-corporate innovation and entrepreneurship) said the double red zone refers to how particularly this year both first- and second-year students are more vulnerable to sexual assault, which explains the increase in reports of sexual assault in the fall of 2021.

As of Thursday, Penn State has reported 13 known instances of sexual assault for the fall semester through University Park-issued Timely Warnings.

Michelle Beckenbaugh, a Penn State University Police and Public Safety officer in the Community Oriented Policing Unit, said the number of sexual assaults has not changed from year to year, but there has been an increase in students reporting them.

"What is changing is society's viewpoints on it, and for one, speaking out about it," Beckenbaugh said. "That's gonna change a whole lot of stuff right there, bringing it to the forefront and standing together."

Beckenbaugh said Penn State sends University Park issued-Timely Warnings of sexual assault in compliance with the Clery Act — without including names to protect the survivor's safety.

Sometimes, according to Beckenbaugh, the information in the Timely Warning is all university police received, and because the warnings need to be sent out, there is not time to find more information.

Brittany Sherman spoke on behalf of CentreSafe — a local domestic and sexual violence resource center in Centre County that works with "survivors of all identities and experiences."

Sherman said CentreSafe offers everything from a 24-hour crisis hotline to emergency shelter, counseling and legal assistance, as well as supervised visitation and child exchanges.

About 10 years ago, CentreSafe was working with a client who had a child with her abuser, Sherman said. CentreSafe had set up a child exchange at a Sheetz, but the abuser killed the client and then himself.

Sherman said it's not always safe to perform a child exchange with an abuser without support, even in a public place.

After this incident, CentreSafe created the Centre County Child Access Center — where victims are able to receive assistance with child exchanges and supervisions.

Beckenbaugh said Penn State University Police and Public Safety works closely with the university's Title IX Office, CentreSafe, Gender Equity Center and Counseling and Psychological Services when handling sexual assault cases.

Iris Richardson, the first director of diversity, equity and inclusion of Penn State University Police and Public Safety, said sexual assault cases can be more difficult at commonwealth campuses than University Park — where most of the above resources are located.

Richardson said some commonwealth campuses may have one person dedicated to psychological services, possibly only part-time, or no one at all. She said at Penn State Mont Alto, the hospital is 20 minutes away from the campus, limiting university police resources in handling sexual assault cases.

Witnesses of sexual misconduct should do one of three things, according to Richardson. They can "direct," meaning challenge the abuser, "delegate," meaning alert another person about what is happening, or "distract," meaning draw the survivor's attention away from the abuser.

Beckenbaugh urged students, faculty and staff to fill out the Penn State University Police survey. She said the results, which will be released this spring, will dramatically help improve police performance.

For example, she said in 2019, respondents to the survey said they felt uncomfortable in Penn State's parking decks, which made police react by increasing patrol presence and having a greater response to lighting problems.

Yvette Wilson from Penn State's Gender Equity Center described the center as the "campus equivalent of CentreSafe."

Wilson said the Gender Equity Center can prepare students to report their sexual assault cases to law enforcement or the Title IX Office, which will conduct investigations. She said investigations can be difficult to endure.

"They take a minimum of usually 90 days, often much longer than that," Wilson said. "You have to talk about what happened to you — you have to generally repeat that. You have to answer questions. It's a very difficult process, and not every survivor wants to have to go through that."

The Gender Equity Center can assist with obtaining protection orders against certain perpetrators of assault through the Title IX Office, according to Wilson.

Beckenbaugh said anyone can anonymously report sexual assault on Penn State University Police's "Report a Crime" page on its website.

Richardson advised the audience not to discount sexual assault against men and mentioned people often don't trust men who say they've been assaulted.

"Believe them. They wouldn't make this up if it didn't really happen."

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