Penn State eyes changes to sexual misconduct case handling
Jan. 29, 2015
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — A new task force report recommends Penn State changes how the university handles sexual misconduct, suggesting it devote an office with an investigator and other staff to those cases.
The university's Task Force on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment said all campuses should "move away from the traditional hearing process" for sexual misconduct matters, instead employing an investigator whose work would be reviewed by a small group of faculty and staff.
Damon Sims, the vice president for student affairs who chaired the group, said its primary recommendation was that Penn State "coordinate all the many activities, programs and services that already exist, and to develop a single, focused message about the institution's response to sexual assault."
The report said the current hearing process is generally effective but decisions on whether to charge someone can be based on limited information and can subject victims to repeatedly having to describe "deeply troubling and highly personal stories ... before hearing panels composed of complete strangers. Inappropriate and inflammatory statements about students' prior sexual histories, emotional and psychological difficulties, or reputations may be made in a hearing before they can be stopped."
Hearing board members, the panel said, are well trained but usually only hear a case or two each year, "thereby limiting their experience with these most difficult matters."
The panel also suggested Penn State release more detailed data that would include student conduct sanctions and that it replace the school's hotline with a more effective way for people to make reports and complaints. It said students were critical of a current system that provides information to freshmen online.
"Some described them as too long or uninteresting; others complained that they were neither interactive, nor relatable. And more than a few expressed the belief that these topics simply do not apply to them; their attention to these educational offering was limited at best," the report found.
The group also endorsed improved staff training, expansion of victim support services at campuses outside University Park and a review to see if consequences in those cases are appropriate to the offenses involved.
Penn State has offered hundreds of programs on related topics in recent years, but the group said many lacked measurable or clearly state goals, were not tailored to target groups and had limited attendance.
The recommendations are in the hands of Penn State president Eric Barron, who convened the task force.
Barron said Wednesday he was impressed by the report and is thinking carefully about what actions the school will take.
The study comes as Penn State and other higher education institutions face federal investigations over handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.
"Something's not right," Barron said. "Some people think, oh, you're hiding things, universities don't want to talk about this. And some people believe the guidance is too difficult for universities to handle."
The U.S. Department of Education began an investigation into Penn State's compliance with the 1990 Clery Act, which mandates public reporting of campus crimes, after the arrest of retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky in 2011. Sandusky was later convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse, including incidents on school property.
"This is a challenge," Barron said. "And so, it is because of the challenge that you have so many universities under investigation. Well, not only are we going to do it right, our intent is to be a national leader."
The report said that in the first four months of this school year, 13 students reported sexual misconduct at the main campus and four at other campuses. Last year, there were 24 at University Park and one elsewhere in the Penn State system.