Timely Warning Graphic

Penn State sent University Park-issued Timely Warnings regarding forcible sex offenses on campus to Penn State students’ inboxes more than a dozen times in the first six weeks of classes.

As of Oct. 13, Penn State has reported 13 known forcible sex offenses since Aug. 21.

Reports were especially concentrated the week of Sept. 10, when five reports were made in the span of five days — including two on Sept. 13.

Compared to past semesters, 13 reports in the first six weeks of school is substantial.

The following numbers show the total number of reported forcible sex offenses issued as Timely Warnings in the last six fall semesters at Penn State:

  • Fall 2021: 13
  • Fall 2020: 8
  • Fall 2019: 2
  • Fall 2018: 7
  • Fall 2017: 8
  • Fall 2016: 19

According to the data, 13 reported forcible sex offenses for half of this fall is greater than four previous fall semesters’ reports for the full semester.

The following numbers show the total number of reported forcible sex offenses issued as Timely Warnings for full academic years:

  • 2020-21 academic year: 16
  • 2019-20 academic year: 10
  • 2018-19 academic year: 12
  • 2017-18 academic year: 16
  • 2016-17 academic year: 28
  • 2015-16 academic year: 19

Timely Warnings were first reported to students in spring 2015, in which there were 11 forcible sex offenses reported, according to the Penn State University Park and Public Safety Police database.

Below is a breakdown of the campus locations where forcible sex offenses have reportedly occurred so far this fall:

  • Approximately 23% reported in Beaver Stadium
  • Approximately 31% reported in East Halls
  • Approximately 31% reported in Pollock Halls

The most recent forcible sex offense, reported on Oct. 3, was said to have occurred in an unknown fraternity house. Though incidents of sexual violence in downtown State College aren’t reported through Timely Warnings — which solely report on-campus incidents — the indivdual decided to report this incident through the university, according to the State College Police Department.

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act is “a federal consumer protection law that requires institutions of higher education participating in the federal student financial aid program to disclose information about certain crime on campus, on buildings/property owned or controlled by the university and on publicly owned property within or immediately adjacent to the campus.”

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Timely Warnings are “Clery Act required notifications that go out to the entire university community to alert of a potential or ongoing threat of a Clery Reportable Offense,” according to Penn State.

“Timely Warnings are issued under a set of particular circumstances as outlined in a federal law called the Clery Act,” according to Jennifer Cruden, public information officer at Penn State University Police and Public Safety.

However, Timely Warnings issued to Penn State students do not reflect all reported sexual assaults on campus, Cruden said.

Damon Sims, vice president of student affairs at Penn State, said in an Oct. 3 blog post that “through September, there have been 44 reported rapes and sexual assaults at University Park in 2021.”

Nine reports of sexual assault and rape on campus were reported in the first six weeks of the fall 2020 semester, according to data from the recently published Penn State police Annual Security Report. These numbers, pulled from internal campus police records, are not yet published for the entirety of 2021, according to Cruden.

Compared to the 13 Timely Warnings in the first six weeks of this fall semester, six Timely Warnings were issued in the first six weeks last fall.

The 2018 and 2019 Annual Security Reports show the number of sexual assaults and rapes in the first six weeks of fall semester classes were 15 in 2018 and 20 in 2019, compared to two and one forcible sex offenses reported through Timely Warnings in the first six weeks of the 2018 and 2019 fall semesters, respectively.

Sims said while the rates of sexual assaults reported through Timely Warnings have been “largely consistent” with those in pre-coronavirus times, Penn State “must expect the number of reported offenses to decline.”

“For too long, these offenses have been underreported, and we must continue to encourage those harmed in these ways to report these offenses,” Sims said in a statement. “Our many efforts to mitigate and prevent sexual misconduct in our community should result in a decline in the number of reported incidents and Timely Warnings, and anything short of that outcome must remain unacceptable to us.”

With assaults occurring early in Penn State’s academic year, conversations have surrounded the “red zone” — the period of time from the beginning of the semester to Thanksgiving that traditionally sees the greatest amount of sexual assaults reported.

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Detective Craig Ripka of the State College Police Department, who handles about “85 to 90% of sexual assault reports” in downtown State College, said he is adamant the red zone issue is an incredibly prevalent part of each academic school year. He defined Penn State’s red zone as an even more concentrated period of time within the fall semester.

“From the moment students come back to campus to about the second or third week of October — that’s usually when… the majority of… sexual assaults [are reported to us],” Ripka said.

Ripka pointed to data from the State College Police Department, which accounts for the borough of State College, College Township and Harris Township. The reported red zone numbers for the past four years are below:

  • Aug. 15-Sept. 30, 2021: 9 sexual assaults
  • Aug. 15-Sept. 30, 2020: 8 sexual assaults
  • Aug. 15-Sept. 30, 2019: 23 sexual assaults
  • Aug. 15-Sept. 30, 2018: 4 sexual assaults

“First of all, there’s a massive influx of people that come back to campus,” Ripka said. “Second, you have people from out of town coming in to visit a lot on weekends due to football games.”

Ripka also said he believes two other major factors affecting the red zone are the age of students and alcohol-related situations.

“You have a lot of college kids who are still teenagers, trying to create a social network while their brains are still developing,” he said. “And alcohol, of course, is one of the biggest things that plays a role.”

Ripka also explained how the specifics of the football schedule impact the data rates of crime — including sexual assault.

“When it’s a Saturday night game, we know we’ll see a lot on the Friday night before when people go out,” he said. “It even depends on the opponent — when we play Michigan or Ohio State, those are big weekends, and we’ll see that reflected in crime.”

This fall semester is the first time many sophomores, as well as freshmen, are experiencing campus life, which some professors said may be contributing to what is now being deemed a “double red zone” — such as Rosa Eberly, associate professor of rhetoric in the department of Communication Arts and Sciences and department of English at Penn State.

Eberly was a panelist at the Penn State Schreyer Gender Equity Coalition’s “Sexual Violence on Campus” virtual discussion panel, which included nine panelists in the Penn State community who spoke about sexual violence at the university and institutional transparency on Oct. 5.

“The idea of a double red zone is really clear,” Eberly said. “We have a lot of people who have never been to campus before. It’s easy for me to say in hindsight that we should have thought of that, but here we are.”

Eberly said the knowledge of the double red zone is an opportunity for Penn State to grasp control of the rise in reports for the first half of fall semesters moving forward.

“Let’s let the university show that [it] learned something from this and show what it will do differently in the coming fall semesters to make sure that not even a single red zone is a thing anymore,” Eberly said.

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As a former Penn State undergraduate in the 1980s, Eberly said she has been following the patterns of sexual assault on campus for many years and pointed out the cycle of behavior that repeatedly occurs.

“If you’ve been observing this for long enough, students have enough time to make progress throughout the academic year, and then April comes, and there’s some culmination of progress,” Eberly said. “And in May, everyone goes away. So the real challenge is sustaining the change through those transitions of students in and out.”

That challenge is one not addressed by universities in general, according to Eberly.

“Higher education depends on students cycling out every four years,” Eberly said. “That way, people forget things. Universities, in general, hope that things will just go away.”

Eberly said she hopes the momentum around this issue will continue, and she addressed the university directly in her concern.

“Can you show that you learned anything from the [Jerry] Sandusky [sex abuse case]? If so, then directly address the problem of sexual assault and sexual violence on your campus and in your community,” Eberly said.

“The university is deeply committed to creating and sustaining a safe and supportive campus climate that leaves no room for sexual assault or harassment and holds accountable those who violate this fundamental expectation,” Sims said in a statement. “We are determined to establish and maintain a safe and supportive environment in concert with the students, faculty and staff of Penn State.”

Penn State said it intends to hold a town hall meeting and focus groups later this semester to discuss progress on and commitment to issues relating to sexual violence, and it will conduct its next university-wide sexual misconduct climate survey in spring 2022.

Despite the prevalence of the red zone on campuses throughout the country, some members of the Penn State community argued the increased Timely Warnings are not reflective of the whole picture, according to Eberly and other scholars.

“FBI statistics in the late ‘80s were that four in 10 assaults were reported. According to the 2020 Department of Justice statistics, more than [roughly] two out of three assaults don't get reported,” Eberly said. “Every time I get a Timely Warning, I multiply it by three — at least.”

Eberly described Timely Warnings as “just the tip of the iceberg of sexual assaults” in the Penn State community.

“Anyone with a shred of empathy is concerned when one of those Timely Warnings arrives, but that’s hardly the whole picture — it’s a fraction of the problem that we have in our culture,” Eberly said. “It is a particular problem on college campuses in the United States.”

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Jill Wood, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State, said she believes the rise in Timely Warnings reflects an increase in reporting — not necessarily in sexual assaults.

“Because we’re in a rape culture and we consider it normative and we’re getting alerts often about forcible offenses, it makes people think that they’re happening more often, but they’re not,” Wood said. “They’re being reported more often, which is great.”

Wood said she believes Penn State has a “rape culture” because there are “imbalances of power” on campus that lead to more sexual assaults.

“Sexual violence is this imbalance of power in which certain people feel entitled to use other people’s bodies for their own interest without their permission,” Wood said. “Just because it’s happening often, just because it’s assumed to be normative — that doesn’t mean that it’s OK.”

While Wood said she emphasizes the “major issue” of the prevalence of sexual assault, she said the increase in reporting this semester is “to the university’s credit.”

“I think the university did an especially good job over COVID-19 in sending out mass emails with all sorts of resources,” Wood said. “I think students started to get more of a sense of what sort of resources we have at Penn State.”

Penn State’s Gender Equity Center is hiring a full-time survivor advocate to back students who have experienced any form of sexual violence and a full-time education and outreach coordinator. A student advisory committee was formed to work with the university’s Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response, Title IX office and Student Affairs Research and Assessment office as well, Sims said.

The alleged increase of students reporting on-campus sexual assaults is encouraging to Wood, who said this shows a sense of “awareness” from students.

“I think what’s promising about that is that, when someone reports, it shows that they have at least some sort of willingness and trust to tell someone about it,” Wood said.

Despite the promising nature of students feeling comfortable to report, Wood said she believes there is a large overall issue with sexual violence cases being unreported and unresolved.

“They’re still drastically underreported,” Wood said. “Often, people aren’t even able to see what happened to them as an assault if it was by someone they knew and trusted if they were drinking — so it’s really a complicated issue.”

Hannah Nelson, president of Survivors and Allies United at Penn State, a group that “focuses on support for survivors of gender discrimination and sexual violence at Penn State,” agreed these issues bring up a “mix of emotions.”

Nelson (senior-print and digital journalism and history) joined the organization in January 2019 — after she experienced sexual assault at Penn State. She estimated about half of the approximately 40 members of Survivors and Allies United are also survivors of sexual assault at Penn State, which she said can make receiving Timely Warnings especially jarring.

“You know that there’s a story behind every Timely Warning that we get,” Nelson said. “A lot of us have gone through that experience, so a lot of our members felt very emotionally drained and helpless when we would get two warnings in a day, or three warnings in a week. You just think, ‘When is it going to stop?’”

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Survivors and Allies United has an “active” GroupMe that serves as a place of “support and resources” for those who have experienced sexual assault at Penn State, according to Nelson. She said the organization “tries to figure out if anyone knows who [the survivor in correlation with the Timely Warning] may be or how we can provide support for people” upon receiving each Timely Warning.

“It can be a very triggering situation for a lot of our members. As a victim, when I get all those notifications, I feel hopeless and terrible and really sad,” Nelson said. “This is a person who’s had their life effectively changed because of the actions of another person.”

As a survivor of sexual assault, Nelson referenced the “strong feeling” she had when she found a support system within Survivors and Allies United and emphasized how harmful the long-term effects of sexual assault are.

“It impacts how you form relationships, your mental health, what you do in your free time, how you do in school,” Nelson said. “It has a large, large impact on people.”

According to Penn State students, professors and community law enforcement, the most important step in seeing a change in these numbers can be summed up in one word — education.

“[Survivors and Allies United has] a really big focus on education,” Nelson said. “We think that by educating incoming students and continually educating students at Penn State, the problem of sexual assault will become much less than it is.”

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Incoming freshmen are required to complete a sexual violence and alcohol awareness online module before coming to campus — Penn State Safe and Aware — through Penn State Student Affairs.

Sexual assault has also typically been a topic of discussion at New Student Orientation sessions, which occur in the summer before each fall semester. However, Nelson said this overview for incoming freshmen is not enough.

“We have talked about suggesting ways that sexual assault prevention education can be brought up every single year for undergrad students,” Nelson said. “It should be a requirement every year that you’re a student, not just something you do two months before you step foot on campus.”

Nelson also noted how having New Student Orientation online the past two years due to the coronavirus may have played a role in the increased Timely Warnings.

“It’s different from learning in person,” Nelson said. “If you’re learning all of this important material virtually, maybe students don’t take it as seriously as they would if it were in person. Something clearly isn’t working.”

The Penn State Safe and Aware module includes videos and short quizzes regarding Relationship and Sexual Violence, which Eberly said is not an effective form of education.

“I’ve heard consistently, from undergraduate students, that both when it comes to alcohol and sexual assault, the trainings are perfunctory,” Eberly said. “Students can complete them without really engaging with the material.”

According to Katie Motycki, interim director of Student Orientation and Transition Programs, NSO has implemented “engaging and interactive programming” related to sexual violence education, including a live musical titled “Results May Vary.”

“NSO Orientation Leaders worked to use this effective musical theatre tool in new ways, including sharing video clips via a Canvas course,” Motycki said via email. “NSO, like other aspects of student engagement, is committed to doing everything possible to safely return to an in-person format moving forward as the University knows these are critical aspects to address.”

Being transparent about what sexual assault and consent looks like is an important step in improving education, according to Wood.

“Sexual assault is typically not a stranger hiding in a bush, waiting to jump out to rape someone,” Wood said. “Typically, sexual assault is someone that the victim knows and trusts, and when we’re told to lock our door, we’re locking that person in with us.”

Wood cited two issues with sexual assault education in general — one being its correlation with alchohol. She said she believes “it’s not true that drinking causes sexual assault,” but rather, she said alcohol is used as a “date rape drug” to purposefully lower people’s inhibitions.

She also said general prevention and education surrounding sexual assault targets messaging toward potential survivors too much instead of targeting perpetrators.

“One of my biggest concerns with how we talk about sexual assault is that we’ve put most of the focus on the [survivors]... in terms of their ability to prevent the violence first,” Wood said. “We’re shifting the burden onto potential [survivors], which is very different from teaching potential perpetrators to not rape.”

Sexual education should be approached by ensuring students are aware of “how to get consent,” Wood said.

“We’re not talking in a more honest and transparent way about how whoever is initiating that sexual activity needs to know that they have consent and that no one is entitled to use someone else’s body for their own enjoyment,” Wood said.

Ripka agreed the number one way to mitigate sexual violence is with more thorough education surrounding consent.

“If we want to decrease these occurrences, it’s all about education,” he said. “There should be more awareness, and I think that education needs to trickle back down into high school since that’s where these issues start.”

Ripka cited Allegheny County in southwestern Pennsylvania as the “cream of the crop” when it comes to sexual assault awareness and education and said he is trying to implement as much of its tactics into his role as possible at the police department.

The momentum from students such as those in Survivors and Allies United and those who gathered on Oct. 1 to protest “sexist violence” at Penn State is what Eberly said she hopes will propel the university toward approaching sexual assault education differently.

“We should use this energy from students and maybe even pay students to do peer education on this topic going forward,” Eberly said. “Maybe there’s a place for a research institute or some other type of support through the university to help students educate each other.”

However, the main shift in attitude to lessen the impact sexual violence is having on college students must arise from Penn State itself, Eberly said.

“The time when [survivors] are treated as mere collateral damage by the university needs to end,” Eberly said. “These are hard things to talk about on university campuses, which are places people want to be because of the energy of young people. Not one person can be collateral damage.”

Editor's Note: Hannah Nelson was a reporter for The Daily Collegian in spring 2018.

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