STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — There are times when Penn State sophomore Sonika Kohli gets ready to leave at night when the fear of becoming a sexual assault victim settles into the back of her mind.

She knows the statistics: More than 1 in 4 undergraduate women here have been victims of either sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. She’s listened to stories from friends who have been assaulted, familiarized herself with resources and organized petitions. And, although sexual assault is not something she actively lives in fear of, she — like a growing number of Penn State students — has had enough.

“Every time my roommate or I leave at night, we’re like, ‘Oh, do you want me to walk with you?’ It’s so much energy to think about every time you leave you dorm room to get a soda or something,” said Kohli, chair of the Schreyer Gender Equity Coalition. “In any other situation, if someone were to say, ‘Every time I leave my door, I think about getting robbed,’ that would be absurd. But, for this issue, it’s normalized.”

A heightened sense of awareness regarding sexual assault has pervaded the University Park campus — and students want the university to do more. Many point to the seemingly nonstop phone alerts from the university, the “timely warnings” that indicate a sex offense has occurred on campus, as reason for concern.

After all, there have been at least 14 such warnings across various campus locations since August — twice as many compared to this time last year — including five in a four-day span in mid-September. And students have reacted: One group organized a march through campus last Friday to demand change, like banning all fraternities, and some students have highlighted troubling numbers from University Park’s 2018 sexual misconduct survey that the university released just last month.

For their part, university officials have tried to empathize with students while, at the same time, adding young adults tend to want change and want change now. And progress doesn’t always work that way, they intimated.

“The university administration understands this impatience and shares it,” Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs, wrote in a recent blog post. “Even as we acknowledge progress made in the form of better and broader administrative structures and programs designed to effectively address these issues, we share frustration that sexual misconduct persists.”

Added Kohli: “It’s just always the university saying , ‘Yeah, we totally agree’ — and then not doing anything about it. So, yeah, it’s definitely frustrating.”

What’s the (national) problem?

More than 100 Penn State students gathered at the Allen Street gates two Fridays ago, armed with signs and megaphones to remind those on the bustling sidewalks downtown that sexual violence remains an important issue on campus.

“This school’s not going to do anything unless we demand they do something!” one organizer, from the group Students Against Sexist Violence (SASV), shouted into the megaphone.

Sexual violence isn’t a Penn State issue; it’s a national issue. So far this semester, similar protests have already been held at Big Ten peers such as Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern. Earlier this month, at Indiana, all 22 sororities even canceled Oct. 2 events with fraternities due to an increase in sexual assault reports.

Sexual violence is notoriously difficult to track as, nationally, only about 1 in 5 college-aged women report to law enforcement. It’s hard to pinpoint whether assaults are truly on the rise, but experts agree of the increased risk during the “red zone,” or between the start of the semester and Thanksgiving break, when half of the year’s campus assaults typically occur. Because of curtailed nightlife last year due to COVID-19 restrictions, some advocates have also referred to this semester as a “double red zone.”

At Penn State, despite the rise of “timely warnings,” University Park might even be an outlier in that sexual assaults do not appear to be significantly increasing. According to university officials, in the first six weeks of this semester, there have been 20 such instances — compared to 20 in the first six weeks of the 2019 fall semester and 15 in the 2018 fall semester. In fact, when it comes to overall totals, this year is on track to see fewer reported rapes and assaults than the last two pre-COVID years.

Still, whether sexual assault cases are increasing or stabilizing, few disagree this remains a serious issue that needs further attention. Based on the recently released 2018 Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey, nearly 3 in 10 female Penn State undergrads do not feel safe on campus from sexual violence and 27.1% of polled female undergrads said they were victims of at least one instance of completed or attempted sexual assault.

“One in three don’t trust Penn State to protect their safety. That’s bad,” said Penn State senior Nora Van Horn, vice chair for the the Schreyer Gender Equity Coalition, which advocated for a year for the release of the survey results, which were delayed due to the pandemic.

What’s the solution?

Jim Willshier, chief public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, acknowledged there was no easy answer here. But he said solutions could essentially be broken down to three areas — prevention/intervention, perpetrator accountability and survivor support.

The first two go hand-in-hand. If a campus collectively finds “locker room talk” unacceptable then that community should speak up when that talk comes up, Willshier said. If they chide the speaker, telling him or her that’s not right, that speaker is being held accountable — and is less likely to do it again. When it comes to support, that simply means understanding every sexual assault survivor is different — and some find it cathartic to tell police while others find it much too traumatic to relive over and over.

When asked specifically about recommendations for Penn State, Willshier — a PSU grad — quickly deferred to the person he felt was most qualified to answer: Anne Ard, executive director of Centre Safe, a local organization that seeks to empower survivors of sexual assault.

And Ard had no shortage of suggestions.

Her first suggestion — improving the bystander intervention program — overlapped with a concern shared by Penn State students Kohli and Van Horn, who characterized the current program as an afterthought. The program usually comes as part of freshman orientation as a one-time training session.

“Most of us have the idea that if we teach somebody, if we can have somebody go through one training class, that they’re going to get it,” Ard said. “The reality is that bystander intervention is a skill and, like any skill, that has to be practiced. So part of what I would encourage the university to do is think about, ‘How do we teach people?’ This is not a one-shot workshop.

“If you learn this in freshman orientation, then by the time you’re a junior and in a fraternity party or house party, are you going to be able to reach back into your brain and pull out, ‘Oh, I should be intervening in this way’? Probably not.”

Ard suggested a one-credit intervention class or a 10-minute required online training course as a condition of enrolling every academic year. She also echoed one of SASV’s demands to support victims on their own terms by saying that, as soon as there is a report, that student should be provided their own advocate.

Centre Safe’s executive director was quick to add that, while students’ trust in the university may be decreasing, hers has only increased. Penn State can stand to improve its practices and policies, she said — but that goes for every university. “You have to be open to critique,” she added. “You have to be open to feedback about the ways it’s not working for people so that you can move forward to learn how it can work more effectively.”

Penn State boasts numerous resources regarding sexual assault, such as offices that allow students to file reports online, in person or virtually; and a center that plans to hire a full-time survivor advocate. Other services, like Counseling and Psychological Services, are available for mental health.

The CDT requested, but was not granted, interviews with Sims and Title IX coordinator Chris Harris. A Penn State spokesperson instead referred the CDT to Sims’ recent blog post.

“This problem will not be solved overnight no matter how determined we may be,” Sims wrote in the recent blog post. “But the university administration remains committed to the hard work required through education, prevention and enforcement.”