Sexual violence prevention was the hot button topic of the University Council meeting Wednesday afternoon.
Since the release of the Association of American Universities’ survey on sexual violence, students have called for the administration to address the issue more seriously. Students, faculty and administrators met in Bodek Lounge to discuss the issue for the first meeting of the semester.
During a question-and-answer session following the presentations, College and Wharton junior Megan Yan, co-chair of Penn Association for Gender Equity and former Business Manager of The Daily Pennsylvanian, asked what had changed since the release of the AAU survey results — which reported that one in three Penn women had experienced some form of sexual assault.
Jessica Mertz, the director of Student Sexual Violence Prevention and Education, responded that it “reminded us of some areas that we need to focus on.” She also said it “re-engaged and energized more folks to get involved with it.”
During her presentation, Mertz discussed education initiatives like Student Anti-Violence Advocate Training, a six-hour training session to inform students about how to be active bystanders. She also applauded student groups like Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention working to spread awareness of the issue on campus, noting that “looking at the problem as a cultural problem” is key to making progress.
Penn President Amy Gutmann asked how to more clearly direct students to resources. “One very simple fact that came out of the survey that did surprise us [was that] a very high proportion of our students did not know where to turn,” she said.
“We need to simplify the information given to them,” Mertz responded. “It’s almost like we have too many options — we just need to make it clear in our messaging.”
Patricia Brennan, director of Special Services within the Division of Public Safety — a department that handles sensitive issues like sexual assault — said that it’s important for students to know that wherever they go, they will be connected with the right resource to help them.
Brennan also noted Special Services is not a division of Penn Police, because Penn Police has a geographic boundary but Special Services does not. If a Penn student experiences sexual harassment abroad, for example, they can still contact Special Services for counseling and instructions for how to move forward. She also said that Special Services does not conduct investigations of sexual assault, explaining that “we assist the city with the investigation.”
Newly-hired Sexual Violence Investigative Officer Deborah Harley, who responds to complaints against students, and determines if their actions violate the Sexual Violence, Relationship Violence and Stalking Policy, also spoke at the meeting. She detailed the process of bringing a complaint against a student in the University.
For now, she said, complaints against faculty are not funneled through her office, but Provost Vincent Price said that in the future complaints against faculty will also be handled there.
Harley stressed that there is an appeals process if either party is unsatisfied with the Office’s decision.
The meeting ended on a different, more uplifting topic. College sophomore and Penn Muslim Student Association representative Nayab Khanthanked Gutmann for her vocal support for Muslim students on campus, and lauded the Halal dining initiative that will offer meat that is prepared in a way that is acceptable under Islamic law at Kings Court English College House. The room applauded.
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