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University leaders speak out against sexual violence

Jamie Martines
| Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, 2:24 p.m.

Elected officials, law enforcement, victim advocates and university representatives from campuses in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties gathered at the University of Pittsburgh Monday to reaffirm their commitment to ending sexual assault on college campuses.

The event centered on the release of a video series compiled by Southwest PA Says No More, a coalition of organizations throughout the region focused on ending domestic and sexual violence, in which presidents of 13 colleges and universities in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties explain what their schools are doing to address campus sexual assault.

Efforts included extra training for faculty and staff, as well cooperation with campus and local law enforcement, to ensure that victims of sexual violence feel safe coming forward. Campus leadership and student representatives also emphasized the need to start educating students about how to prevent sexual assault before they arrive on campus.

"We're from Westmoreland County, and this is not just a problem on urban campuses," said Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas. "We're home to five colleges and universities in Westmoreland County. It's a rural problem as well."

One in five female undergraduate students and one in 14 male undergraduate students nationwide have reported experiencing sexual assault, according to U.S. Department of Justice data.

There are 360 active sexual violence investigations at 255 colleges, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education's Title IX tracker, which monitors active cases at schools across the country.

There are 20 active investigations at 15 colleges and universities across Pennsylvania.

"It's not enough to simply deal with the issue once it's happened, we have to change the culture, whether they come to us and they've experienced it before they get here, or whether they experience it on campus," said Seton Hill University President Mary Finger, adding that Seton Hill is working with the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg to increase education and conversations around sexual assault.

Just last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced plans to overhaul Obama administration sexual assault policies in an effort to "establish a regulatory framework that serves all students" and balance the rights of victims and those accused of sexual misconduct.

"The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students," DeVos said last week. "Survivors, victims of a lack of due process and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved."

Pennsylvania Department of Health Physician General Rachel Levine, speaking on behalf of Governor Tom Wolf at Monday's event, said that the Wolf Administration stands by Title IX, the federal law that addresses sexual discrimination in education that DeVos plans to reevaluate.

"We don't want any diminishment of the current emphasis on this absolutely critical and important issue," Levine said.

Wolf did not attend the event but shared remarks in a video statement. Last week, he encouraged Pennsylvania college and university leadership to adhere to the standards set out in the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (Campus SaVE) Act, which strived to improve transparency around reports of campus sexual assault.

U.S. Senator Bob Casey was an author of the Campus SaVE Act , which went into effect in 2015 as amendments to existing laws related to sexual assault known as the Clery Act. The laws are intended to complement federal Title IX laws.

University presidents also weighed in.

"We're not going backwards in the importance of emphasizing this and continuing to address this as an issue on college campuses," said Carlow University President Suzanne Mellon.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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