HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday signed two campus safety initiatives aimed at making it easier for college students to report sexual assaults to authorities.
The measures, slipped into the state budget package that was approved last month, will grant immunity from school policies on drug use and underage drinking to students who report sexual assault, and require colleges and universities to offer anonymous online sexual misconduct reporting.
Lawmakers and advocates are hopeful that the law will remove barriers that victims face to reporting sexual violence.
“I don’t want anyone to feel afraid to call 911 to report a serious crime like a rape because he or she might get a citation for something like underage drinking,” Wolf said in the Capitol before signing the measures.
According to It’s on Us, a nonprofit that works to raise awareness of sexual misconduct and end assault, 11.2 percent of undergraduate and graduate students experience sexual assault.
State Sen. Judy Schwank (D., Berks), who pushed the bill to grant immunity to students reporting an assault, called statistics surrounding sexual assault on campuses “horrifying.”
Although her bill does not provide protection from criminal penalties, Schwank said the legislation ensures those reporting violence through a university or college do not have to fear internal punishment.
“This doesn’t downplay underage drinking and drug use,” Schwank said. “Schools must continue to address those issues. But given the physical and emotional implications of surviving assault or domestic violence, the well-being and security of students has to take precedence.”
The other measure will mandate that postsecondary institutions offer an online sexual violence reporting option — something Adrianna Branin, a senior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a sexual assault reform advocate, believes will help victims “control how their experience is reported.”
“Sexual trauma is paralyzing and isolating,” she said. “We expect people that have never received the tools to talk about consensual intimacy to then be able to navigate a complicated system that involves describing the specific details of their assault to police officers and school officials.”
Some colleges and universities, including Pennsylvania State University, already offer online reporting. Those that do not will be expected to implement an electronic reporting option.
If a student reports sexual violence online, the form would go to the school’s Title IX officer, who is tasked with handling cases of campus sex discrimination. The officer would launch investigations into allegations made by students who agree to provide their name.
Students reporting anonymously cannot file a formal complaint, but the information they provide would be included in the school’s data on sexual misconduct on campus. That would help schools identify potential problem areas and trends.
Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne) said she hopes the measures will give students more options and say in reporting assault, harassment, or other sexual violence. Underreporting, she said, gives a misleading snapshot of campus safety and ensures attackers do not face consequences for their actions.
“One of the keys to a solution is awareness,” Baker said. “Victims must be able to come forward to report discreetly, and be assured that they will be treated with dignity and credibility during the course of a thorough inquiry.”