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Biden rallies Pitt students to combat sexual assault

Debra Erdley
| Tuesday, April 5, 2016, 2:06 p.m.
Vice President Joe Biden angrily speaks against sexual assault on college campuses around the U.S. when he addressed about 2,000 students at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center to help kick off the White House's 'It's on Us' campaign to combat sexual assault and violence against women, Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Vice President Joe Biden angrily speaks against sexual assault on college campuses around the U.S. when he addressed about 2,000 students at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center to help kick off the White House's 'It's on Us' campaign to combat sexual assault and violence against women, Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
The audience was visibly moved when Vice President Joe Biden spoke against sexual assault on college campuses around the United States when he addressed around 2000 students at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center to help kick off the White Houses 'It's on Us,' campaign to combat sexual assault and violence against women, Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The audience was visibly moved when Vice President Joe Biden spoke against sexual assault on college campuses around the United States when he addressed around 2000 students at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center to help kick off the White Houses 'It's on Us,' campaign to combat sexual assault and violence against women, Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Vice President Joe Biden angrily speaks against sexual assault on college campuses around the United States when he addressed around 2000 students at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center to help kick off the White Houses 'It's on Us,' campaign to combat sexual assault and violence against women, Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Vice President Joe Biden angrily speaks against sexual assault on college campuses around the United States when he addressed around 2000 students at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center to help kick off the White Houses 'It's on Us,' campaign to combat sexual assault and violence against women, Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Vice President Joe Biden pauses during an emotional moment when speaking against sexual assault on college campuses when he addressed around 2000 students at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center on Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Vice President Joe Biden pauses during an emotional moment when speaking against sexual assault on college campuses when he addressed around 2000 students at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center on Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Vice President Joe Biden takes selfies with the audience after a speech against sexual assault at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center on Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Vice President Joe Biden takes selfies with the audience after a speech against sexual assault at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center on Tuesday, April 5, 2016.

Vice President Joe Biden looked out at the sea of students gathered at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center on Tuesday and smiled.

Biden spoke passionately for more than 45 minutes urging students to take the “It's On Us” pledge to change a culture that he said has winked at sexual assault and harassment on U.S. campuses for decades.

Biden's activism on sexual assault and domestic violence — causes he took with him to the White House — dates back to his days in the U.S. Senate, where he championed the Violence Against Women Act more than two decades ago.

The vice president said he adopted his father's philosophy when he saw an opportunity to make a difference in attitudes.

“He'd say the cardinal sin was when a man raised his hand to a woman or a child or when anyone raised a hand to anyone who was weaker,” Biden said.

Most students — more than 1,000 — who stood in line for almost two hours to hear Biden kick off the White House's “It's On Us” week of activism hadn't been born when he took up the cause in the Senate in 1989.

Biden said much has changed since then. It was a time, he said, when many considered sexual abuse and domestic violence “a private matter, a family matter.”

“Domestic violence is down 64 percent over the last 20 years, even though a high number of women are reporting now. … But for girls and women between the ages of 14 and 24, nothing has changed,” he said, noting that 174 colleges and universities remain under investigation for possible violations of the Civil Rights Act related to their treatment of complaints of sexual assault and harassment.

Those numbers — and reports that suggested as many as one in five women will be sexually molested in college — were the impetus for the “It's on Us” campaign. Biden is scheduled to take his message to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and University of Colorado later this week.

At Pitt, where the university formed a sexual assault task force and the student body has conducted an active “It's on Us” campaign, students lined up two hours early in the chilly morning air to get into the rally. Pitt officials said approximately 200 students were turned away.

“It's really exciting that he's come here to talk about this. It underscores how important this is,” senior Jasee Freeman said.

Freeman, 21, of Maryland was active in Pitt's efforts to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus last year as a resident assistant. That effort was visible in an 800-foot-long paper chain that festooned the Events Center, each link representing one of the 4,100-plus students who had signed the “It's on Us” pledge.

Biden said he always has had a soft spot for Pitt — one of only two schools that showed any interest in his career as a high school football player.

On a serious note, he reminded the students of the fears that parents face when their children start college.

“Every one of your parents, when they dropped you off for the first day of class and kissed you goodbye, they had great expectations for you. But along with that was the nagging fear: ‘Are you going to be OK?' …The fact of the matter is that fear is real, and for too many parents that fear will be realized,” Biden said, ticking off the statistics about assaults on college campuses.

Gov. Tom Wolf, who became the first governor to sign on to the “It's On Us” campaign, introduced Biden.

Wolf said the costs of sexual violence – including PTSD, depression, alcohol abuse and lost workdays — is estimated at as much as $240,000 over the lifetime of a survivor.

“It dampens the exchange of everything from ideas to feelings. It violates the right of everyone to a safe society,” Wolf said.

Although many had already signed pledges, hundreds of students raised their hands when Biden asked them to take the “It's on Us” pledge to make sexual violence unacceptable and provide support for survivors.

“Thank you,” Biden said as students applauded.

“We have to change the culture that allows the abuse of women and men, and we must be clear that no means no. Period. … It takes courage. It's not easy. … But you've gotta say something. You've gotta do something,” Biden said.

Carnegie Mellon University student Evan Wineland, 21, who attended the session at Pitt, said he respects Biden's commitment to the issue.

“I was impressed to hear someone whose record on the subject speaks for itself,” said Wineland, who has been active in CMU's Survivors' Support Network.

Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition against Rape and National Sexual Violence Resources Center, hailed Biden's longstanding effort.

“It's important for the messages to come from the top down,” Houser said as she left the Pitt rally, “and you can't get much higher than that.”

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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