This story is part of “The Red Zone,” a PublicSource project. More than half of sexual assaults among college students occur in the fall. The series offers resources and examines what’s being done to protect those at risk in the Pittsburgh area. Content warning: This story contains references to sexual violence.
Pittsburgh universities have made significant investments to prevent and investigate sexual violence on their campuses, but the experiences of survivors reveal gaps and flaws in those efforts.
How do university administrators respond?
PublicSource spoke with university officials across the Pittsburgh region who are involved in Title IX compliance. Out of nine Pittsburgh-area institutions, seven made their administrators available. Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne universities provided statements.
Several administrators spoke candidly about the challenges they’ve encountered, from finding advisers for students who report to ensuring international students understand their protections under the federal civil rights law. The officials also detailed the work their institutions have undertaken to address sexual violence.
Here’s a breakdown:
University of Pittsburgh
Katie Pope, the associate vice chancellor for civil rights and Title IX at Pitt, identified communication as one of the top challenges for the office she leads. She said the university has worked over the years on a “multi-layered” communications plan.
It’s important, she said, that when someone is coming to the Title IX office after a potential trauma, they get immediate help, necessary accommodations and clear expectations for the process.
Several variables make it hard for the Title IX office to control the timeline, Pope said. In the past, the target was 60 days to complete the investigation. But under the Trump administration’s guidelines implemented in 2020, there is no set limit.
The number of witnesses or evidence may affect the pace of the investigation, Pope said. She gave an example of someone having 12 witnesses. “That investigative process is going to look very different than a case that may have one witness simply because you’ve got 12 people to talk to,” she said.
A thorough review of the documents may also slow down the process. “You don’t want to get 200 pages of texts and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I read those.’ And then come to find out later that on page 189 was something that would have made a difference potentially in how a decision was made.”
Advisers present another point of confusion, Pope said. The university has to provide trained advisers if a complainant or respondent doesn’t have one.
Some students confuse a support person with an adviser. They can be the same person but not always. “Your roommate who has helped you to get through all these interviews may not be the person that you want to have to go to a hearing with,” she said, noting that an adviser cross-examines the other party.
Finding qualified advisers has been hard. Pitt worked with the Allegheny Bar Association to find pro bono advisers. But volunteer systems are not always reliable.
Pope’s office is now working with an on-campus group trained in the adjudication process and starting conversations with professional schools on campus that may have graduate-level students willing to serve as advisers.
Pope acknowledged that going through the Title IX process may be difficult for some people, and said feedback from Pitt’s community is important. She cited the recent relocation of the Title IX office to the Cathedral of Learning as a way to make the office more visible and accessible.
“We do get situations where folks get frustrated,” she said, but it’s rare. Ultimately, she said: “We’re happy to have tough conversations if you had a difficult experience with some of the services. That’s what we need to know to make sure that we’re improving, to make it better.”
Carnegie Mellon University
CMU did not make any officials involved in Title IX available for an interview, but a spokesperson provided a statement in response to a PublicSource inquiry.
The university voluntarily participated in a 2019 climate survey from the Association of American Universities to “inform the programs, support services and resources offered on campus,” according to the statement. CMU’s Office of Title IX Initiatives held town hall meetings following the survey’s release to educate the campus community.
The university provides yearly communications to students, faculty and staff about Title IX developments and informational sessions and prevention training to incoming students and members of Greek life, among other groups. The Title IX office also became a part of the Vice Provost’s Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in 2021 to centralize support and education, according to the statement.
“Preventing sexual misconduct and addressing its impact is an issue colleges and universities around the country take seriously just as we do at Carnegie Mellon,” the statement reads. “We are committed to hearing from our students and learning how we can best support them based upon their experiences.”
Duquesne did not make its Title IX coordinator available for an interview, but provided a statement emphasizing that it “takes sexual, gender and domestic violence very seriously.
“Sexual misconduct is a persistent issue in our society and our top priority is to prevent such violence. We are committed to providing a variety of responsive measures to help meet the needs of those people who experience such violence,” the statement reads.
The university’s Title IX team has prioritized sharing information about policies and resources through in-person engagements to increase the campus community’s awareness, according to the statement. The university’s website includes reporting mechanisms and “extensive detail” about policies and procedures, per the statement.
“We are committed to preventing sexual misconduct, providing campus safety education, and responding promptly and equitably to reports.”
At Carlow, a small, private Catholic university, Jacqueline Smith serves as the director of Disability Services and Title IX coordinator. She conducts training with student leaders, including resident assistants, resident directors and on-campus tutors.
Collaboration between her office and other groups at Carlow, such as Project SAFE, has helped Carlow to provide “a real wraparound service,” she said.
Project SAFE is an advocacy effort funded through a grant from the Department of Justice for work in preventing violence against women. Smith has been collaborating with Project SAFE Director Erin Tunney on training, events and other programming.
“We are consulting with external trauma-informed organizations to make sure that we’re not retraumatizing someone who’s reporting and that we’re using resources that are affordable and available to students regularly,” Smith said.
Carlow administrators continue training with external organizations including the Association of Title IX Administrators.
And, like other universities in the Pittsburgh area, Carlow has also been working with Pittsburgh Action Against Rape [PAAR] and Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh to offer services to survivors.
“The challenges of addressing sexual violence on campus mirror the challenges of addressing sexual violence in society as a whole,” said Chris Purcell, vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Chatham.
The law and required procedures make it difficult to report and to get fast action, he said. It is even more complicated for more marginalized communities, which more frequently experience sexual violence but may also feel as though the university has not listened to them appropriately, Purcell said.
Before undergraduate and graduate students start their first semester, Chatham sends them an online Sexual Assault Prevention module, he said. Several weeks later, they get a second module to assess what they learned. “Undergraduates also receive an alcohol education module, which we know is important because of the role alcohol and other drugs play in sexual assault prevention,” Purcell said.
Purcell said that even though it’s going to be difficult to get every survivor of sexual violence to report, his goal is “to try to infuse violence prevention in as many different spaces as possible.”
This work is never-ending and ever-evolving, he said. “We can’t assume that a message we sent last year is going to resonate this year.”
Purcell advises a group called the Sexual Respect Committee at Chatham, which creates and hosts programming. Some highlights from last year, he said, include sex education bingo, a “Me Too” healing space and trauma-informed yoga.
Chatham, a private university, has a history around issues of gender. Up until 2015, it was an all-women college. “We’ve always been a place where gender has been at the forefront. It is still a place where gender is discussed.”
Purcell said many faculty study gender-based violence. “So we’re lucky to have a lot of centers and faculty and academic programs that put on additional programming and have additional initiatives on the faculty side that help with education, but also the intellectual engagement around these topics.”
Still, universities are not always able to control how their messages land. When Purcell gives Title IX-related presentations, he provides a content warning beforehand.
“I give those presentations in order for folks to have the information they need to report and get the support they need,” he said. “But I’ve seen the faces of some of the students that are deeply impacted by the words that are coming out of my mouth. Because they have experienced those issues, most likely.”
Point Park University
In the past two years, Point Park University students have been spreading awareness on social media about sexual violence and harassment they have experienced during their time at the university. In their stories, the survivors warned of the rampant rape culture and in some cases named their abusers in hopes of seeking justice. The university said it takes the students’ feedback seriously and encouraged the students to file Title IX complaints.
In a statement to PublicSource, the university’s spokesperson Lou Corsaro wrote: “Sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking are not tolerated at Point Park University. We have a comprehensive set of policies and procedures that adhere to all federal Title IX requirements and are designed to protect our students.”
Vanessa Love, Point Park’s assistant vice president of Compliance & Integrity and its Title IX coordinator, said student involvement has been an important driver of change. She noticed over the years that more students are coming to her to suggest programming around bystander intervention. The university has been able to apply for grants to fund those efforts.
Making the Title IX process more transparent and understandable is one of the goals for Love’s office.
“We’ve had a lot of forums where I think everyone was very transparent about what the process looks like, what the procedures look like, and I think that has been helpful to students. But overall, it’s a traumatic process to go through,” she said.
Love said the university is not a final decision-maker after the hearings in the Title IX cases. The decision-maker is not the same person as the investigator or the Title IX coordinator. The university’s role is to make sure everyone complies with the guidelines.
“Generally, no party is happy at the end of that process, no matter the outcome,” she said. “So even if the complainant wanted the person to be found responsible and they were found responsible, they might not feel like the sanction was what they wanted the sanction to be.”
Robert Morris University
The Title IX office at Robert Morris tries to connect with students as early and as often as possible, said Lisa Hernandez, Title IX coordinator and chief human resources officer. The office provides information about Title IX to all new and transfer students through a mandatory online program and has partnered with Greek life and the THRIVE Program on campus, she said.
A few years ago, the office identified a challenge: Some international students did not completely understand Title IX and its protections — or that they had experienced misconduct.
“We would reach out to those students, and we would have to do a lot of education to try and explain to them why the behavior that they had experienced was not OK and what recourse they had,” she said.
Hernandez said the reports she has dealt with involving international students, though infrequent, have come exclusively from faculty or staff members. “If left to their own devices, I don’t think the international students would self-report as much,” she said.
Though that education gap remains a challenge today, RMU has taken steps to close it. The university has purchased additional training software, which Hernandez and the deputy Title IX coordinator have used at a seminar for international students.
Hernandez said the Title IX office is a neutral party that’s meant to ensure compliance with the law, but she doesn’t believe the office’s required objectivity is at odds with supporting survivors. The office has “a long list” of resources that it provides survivors and has worked closely with PAAR, she said.
“We extend supportive measures and resources to complainants as well as respondents,” Hernandez said. “As long as someone is a student here, we are going to ensure that they have the supports that they need or we will at least offer them.”
La Roche University
At La Roche, Colleen Ruefle said social media brings educational benefits and potential investigatory challenges. The university can share tips on healthy relationships and sexual awareness in a way that is more attractive to students, said Ruefle, the Title IX coordinator, vice president for student life and dean of students.
One drawback, however, is the occasional “drama,” Ruefle said.
“If we do a no-contact order, if we call somebody in to have a conversation to get their side of the story, we have to be very clear to say: ‘You cannot put this on social media,’” she said.
Social media may prevent the university from receiving complaint-related evidence in its complete context, Ruefle said. For instance, most Snapchat messages automatically disappear.
The university conducts climate surveys each year that assess, in part, whether students believe La Roche would take a report of misconduct seriously. The university consistently receives positive responses, Ruefle said.
La Roche educates students on healthy relationships, consent and the Title IX process. The university’s programming on consent has evolved over the years as younger students frequently have questions about it, she said.
She used to believe that the fewer reports of sexual misconduct the university received, the better. But a lack of reports may signal that students aren’t comfortable reporting, she said.
“I can only respond to what is being reported to me,” she said. “I think it’s important to create a climate where people are comfortable reporting something.”
Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC]
Ketwana Schoos’ long title — CCAC’s civil rights compliance officer and Title IX & ADA/504 coordinator — conveys the range of responsibilities and challenges she has at the college. Her team is small: Schoos and one other person, a civil rights investigator.
The student demographics of CCAC affect the types of concerns that Schoos deals with. Many students at CCAC are part time, and some may be starting families and require pregnancy accommodations.
CCAC does not have a residential campus setting, so the nature of complaints is different from a traditional four-year institution with dorms. Since the onset of the pandemic, Schoos saw an uptick in domestic violence and intimate partner violence cases among students.
CCAC makes up for modest staffing through “a robust network of community partners, the higher education institutions and regional agencies,” Schoos said. For example, one of the doctoral level interns from Pitt’s School of Education was helping with a grant application to focus on support for survivors of domestic violence.
CCAC does not have peer educators who do on-the-ground programming. Schoos’s office has brought in interns from Pitt to conduct a sexual assault awareness program. It’s a self-paced class for the CCAC community.
More resources would be helpful, Schoos acknowledged, so that CCAC is able to provide in-house support instead of through referrals.
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mila Sanina is an independent journalist and assistant teaching professor of journalism. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.