As colleges around the nation have come under scrutiny for alleged failings in handling sexual violence on campus, Penn has updated both its sexual violence policy and sexual violence education to make sure it is fully in compliance with federal law.
After eight years of teaching sexual violence prevention to freshmen as part of the Safe Living session at New Student Orientation, the University will be revamping its NSO education efforts by bringing in outside performance group Speak About It and separating the session from Safe Living.
Speak About It customizes its script for every school, referencing each school’s specific culture and resources, Speak About It Executive Director Shana Natelson said. The hour-long performance — a significant time increase from the previous sexual violence session at NSO — covers both healthy sexuality and sexual assault prevention. During the show, Speak About It will take time to point out resources available to victims of sexual violence and identify members from resource centers available in the audience wearing specifically-colored shirts in case anyone gets uncomfortable during the course of the performance.
“The show tries very hard to keep a consistent ‘yes means yes’ as opposed to ‘no means no,’” Natelson said. “‘Yes means yes’ means that you should be excited and understand what your boundaries are, and that’s a huge part of preventing sexual assault.”
Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs Hikaru Kozuma said Penn first began reexamining NSO in the fall. “We wanted to utilize a professional outlet that specializes in delivering serious information in a way that is engaging to students,” he said in an email.
The new program will also ensure that Penn is fully in compliance with new federal standards for sexual violence education, Vice President for Institutional Affairs Joann Mitchell said.
A Daily Pennsylvanian poll on sexual violence conducted last fall showed that 65 percent of undergraduates learned to get help after a sexual assault primarily during NSO. At the same time, the poll showed a general lack of knowledge of resources: Only 19 percent of students knew that Penn has a trained rape crisis victim advocate, and 39 knew that there is long-term counseling available for sexual assault victims. The most-identified resource was the Division of Public Safety’s self-defense class. The past NSO presentation has received criticism for being buried toward the end of the Safe Living session, making retention among students low.
Natelson is aware that Speak About It will come during a week where the Class of 2018 will be bombarded with new information. She said Speak About It and its actors, all in their mid-20s, try to have a conversation with students rather than talk down to them.
“It’s a very lofty goal for any organization to eradicate or eliminate sexual assault on college campuses,” she said. “If they leave and are talking about what consent means, it’s a success for us.”
Meanwhile, University administration released proposed changes to Penn’s sexual violence policy in the Almanac on May 6, which would add specific definitions for relationship violence, domestic violence and stalking to the policy banning sexual violence amongst faculty, staff, students and visitors to campus. The previous policy only defined rape, non-forcible sex acts and consent.
“Basically, we’ve been trying to find ways to ensure we’re in compliance with Title IX, Clery and CampusSAVE,” said Mitchell, citing the three major federal provisions that govern how universities deal with sexual violence.
The proposal would also change the name of the policy from the Sexual Violence Policy to the Sexual Violence, Relationship Violence and Stalking Policy. “We want to make it more clear and explicit to members of our community what our policies and procedures are,” Mitchell said.
If the proposal is approved, Penn will define relationship violence as “a pattern of abuse committed by a person, past or present, involved in a sexual or romantic relationship with the victim.” It will encompass physical, sexual, emotional or economic violence. Domestic violence will be defined as “abuse committed against an adult who is a spouse or former spouse, co-habitant or someone with whom the abuser has a child, has an existing dating or engagement relationship or has had a former dating or engagement relationship.”
Stalking would be defined as “engaging in a course directed at specific person(s) that would cause a reasonable person to (a) fear for his or her safety or the safety of others, or (b) suffer substantial emotional distress.”
Violations of the policy “may result in disciplinary action up to and including expulsion or termination of employment,” separate from any additional criminal ramifications.
Anyone with additional suggestions regarding Penn’s proposed policy update should send feedback to Mitchell by May 20.
In early May, the Department of Education released a list of over 50 schools under federal investigation for allegedly violating federal guidelines for handling sexual violence. The list — which includes Ivy League peers Harvard College, Harvard Law School, Princeton University and Dartmouth College — isn’t the only time sexual violence has been in the national spotlight this year. The White House convened a task force on sexual assault on Jan. 22, 2014, which released report in late April and launched a new website, NotAlone.gov, with resources for both schools and students. Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Kristin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have pledged to bring the issue to the forefront of the Senate floor.