New Pitt Initiatives Address Sexual Assault and Misconduct, Aim to Promote Safety and Awareness

Issue Date: 
September 14, 2015

The problem of sexual assault is worldwide. In the United States alone, statistics indicate that sexual assault happens to one in five women, and one in 71 men. In recent years, news reports about sexual assault and misconduct have begun to focus more and more on universities. It is a problem that afflicts our university, affecting men and women, and all gender identities and sexualities.

Nationally, it has been reported that one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. The problem is so significant that, in January 2014, the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault was established, with a mandate to strengthen federal enforcement efforts and provide schools with additional tools to help combat sexual assault on their campuses.

That year the White House Task Force launched a national endeavor—the “It’s On Us” campaign, which asks supporters to pledge to keep women and men safe from sexual assault—to help transform cultural attitudes of silence and stigma attached to sexual assault and harassment. 

The University of Pittsburgh, through its Division of Student Affairs, has a long-standing program in place to support victims of sexual assault, as well as methods to raise awareness of the problem and to address safety and prevention. In 2014, the division established a Sexual Assault Task Force with representation from across the University dedicated to education, prevention, and response. Also that year, Pitt’s Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education (SHARE) developed the web site, which offers information on prevention, resources, and where to get help. 

In February 2015, Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher addressed the issue directly in a communication to the University community, stating: “Sexual violence has no place in our university. It is counter to the very culture of openness and learning that we seek to establish, it is counter to our values to respect every individual, and it undermines the safety and well-being of the members of our university community. Because of this, preventing sexual violence is not merely a matter of the law. It is also about our campus culture. Maintaining a campus environment where sexual violence is prevented and addressed is a responsibility that we all share and is one of my priorities as Chancellor.” 

Consistent with this goal, Pitt has continued to take additional steps to further its commitment to the safety of its students, faculty, and staff. Below is a list of some of the initiatives, which begin at orientation and continue throughout a student’s Pitt experience. 

A variety of tools and resources are offered by SHARE, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and the University, in general, including:

• Every incoming Pitt student is required to take an online sexual assault training module, HAVEN, a requirement that has been expanded to include all new students at all regional campuses as well. Last year, the incoming class achieved a 98% completion rate. 

• At orientation, for the past three years, all new and transfer students have participated in Bystander Intervention Training—about 4,000 students each year. Mary Koch Ruiz, the SHARE program coordinator, notes that studies are showing bystander interventions to be among the most effective ways to prevent sexual misconduct. 

• Student groups on campus, such as the Campus Women’s Organization and Let’s RAVE (Raise Awareness and Victim Empowerment), act as peer educators, conducting workshops and promoting the “It’s On Us” national-campaign initiative, recommended by the White House Task Force. 

The University community has enthusiastically participated in the “It’s On Us” campaign. Campus TV screens have been showing “It’s On Us” videos, and thousands of Pitt community members have signed a pledge to end sexual violence.

• The University has engaged in “benchmarking” with other universities to learn more about how schools effectively address issues of sexual violence and misconduct. 

• This summer, Student Health Services began a collaboration with Liz Miller, chief of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, on an NIH-funded clinical research study focusing on “Intimate Partner Sexual Violence and Intervention.” 

• On Aug. 26 at the New Student Convocation, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher raised awareness about the issue of sexual assault and violence with the 4,094 members of the incoming class of 2019.

In addition, the University has established the new Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which houses the University’s Title IX office. Going forward, that office will constantly evaluate and improve upon existing efforts through a number of new strategic initiatives, noted Pam Connelly, associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, to move Pitt into a new era of sexual safety education, prevention and response. For example, both the Title IX office and SHARE offer a wide-ranging roster of customized training sessions for student groups, University departments and leaders, faculty, and staff.

“These are complex matters,” says Connelly about the issues involved in sexual assault and misconduct. “You can’t just have one education session that works for everybody. Every case comes with its own unique set of facts and challenges.” Because of that, Connelly stresses that if any units want to receive customized training, they only need to ask. “We’re very happy to create it. We do it all the time.”

An important part of the University’s efforts to evaluate and improve is learning about the current climate and hearing from the students about their experiences. As a result, in April, Pitt elected to voluntarily participate in a comprehensive “campus climate survey,” along with 27 other members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), as an information-gathering measure to assess its strengths and weaknesses. The AAU climate survey results are expected this fall. 

“The University chose to participate in the study because it is committed to working toward a climate that is free from sexual misconduct. One important step will be studying those AAU climate survey results to assess the current climate, along with our education, prevention, response efforts, and to adapt our programming and processes to respond to the information revealed by the survey,” Connelly said. 

Finally, augmenting all of these efforts is Pitt’s new full-time Title IX Coordinator position, with Katie Pope recently hired in this role. Title IX is a federal law established in 1972 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational institution or related activity that is federally funded. Early
on it was typically associated with ensuring gender-equity in athletics. Over time, issues of sexual misconduct increasingly became associated with Title IX requirements, including a university’s legal responsibility to appropriately address cases that emerge on campus.

Like most universities nationally, Pitt’s Title IX coordinator has historically worn many hats, Connelly said, adding that she is enthusiastic about the focus and Title IX expertise that Pope brings to her position. “To have somebody that’s working every day of the year, focused on this issue, strategically, is going to be great. It’s going to make a difference,” Connelly said.

The ultimate goal is to transform the environment. “It’s a terrible thing to infect the educational environment with something as destructive as sexual violence and misconduct,” says Connelly. “If we want to take care of our students and, if we want to be a world-class institution, we have to have an environment where people feel safe.”