While state officials in Harrisburg take steps to help victims of sexual assault on campus, local colleges in Mercer County reflect on what they’re already doing for their students.
Signed into law as part of Pennsylvania’s budget, the legislation would require colleges to offer online anonymous sexual assault reporting and would also protect students reporting sexual assault from being disciplined for violating school drug, alcohol or other policies.
When the legislation was first announced, Grove City College’s Vice President of Student Life and Learning Larry Hardesty said he noticed two major areas that could benefit GCC.
The first was the implementation of an online system, which Hardesty said college officials considered putting together prior to the legislation’s passing. The second was the added amnesty policy, which Grove City College also pursues whenever a student needs to report an incident such as sexual assault.
“It’s like if a student came to you and said ‘I have a problem with alcohol,’ you wouldn’t say ‘all right, let’s go to your room and write you up for alcohol’ — you would want to help the student,” Hardesty said.
With a student body of about 2,300, potential victims have multiple resources to turn to, whether it’s the resident life department or the college’s counseling department, which has two full-time counselors and three part-time counselors, all of whom have full confidentiality with the students.
There’s also Grove City College’s Campus Safety team, which has three campus safety officers who are on duty at all times. But instead of just patrolling in their vehicles, the officers make it a point to get to know the students and care for them, Hardesty said.
“I just had a conversation with one of our officers about the students who were graduating, and when I heard the level of intimacy that he knew these students I said, ‘I’m surprised you know all this,’ and he said, ‘It’s my job,’” he said.
Aside from the resources available to students on-campus, Grove City College partners with AWARE Inc. in Mercer County, and makes their information readily available to students, Hardesty said.
“Having an off-campus resource can be really helpful for students that want to maintain confidentially and if they’re worried about other people finding out, and for me it’s comforting to know that my students have that backup option,” he said.
At Thiel College in Greenville, the legislation likewise touches upon something the college had already pursued to protect its students, said Mike McKinney, dean of student life and Title IX coordinator.
“We can make some tweaks and changes to the manuals and the info that’s available to the students, but I think the spirit of the law and legislation was already at Thiel College,” McKinney said.
At Thiel, the college’s website features a phone number and a link for students to follow so they can report sexual assault. The system is operated by a third party, and allows students to report the incident anonymously, McKinney said.
“They’ll assign a case number to the individual, but they won’t take down any identifiable information, and then they use the case number to follow up with the person,” he said.
At Thiel, some dorms can be certified to have alcohol if all the occupants are 21 years old. While there isn’t necessarily an amnesty policy for drugs or alcohol when reporting sexual assault as outlined in the legislation, Thiel does have such an amnesty policy for medical emergencies.
However, Thiel’s Public Safety department maintains about two or three officers on duty at all times. While Public Safety does respond to calls and incidents, the students also frequently get to interact with the officers in normal situations, such as in the halls or the cafeteria, McKinney said.
This helps generate a “strong” relationship with the students and makes them more comfortable in coming to the public safety officers. Student surveys also reflect this relationship, as students regularly rate Thiel’s security as “very high,” McKinney said.
“They (Public Safety) try to implement a community policing model, so they get to know the students, and the students know them not just as police but as members of the Thiel community,” he said.
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