Content warning: This story contains references to sexual violence.

College campuses are supposed to be safe places for students to learn, build relationships and pursue their passions. At the University of Pittsburgh, a recently reported sexual assault has fractured that sense of safety, spurring demands for change and criticism over potential solutions. 

About two weeks ago, a female student was sexually assaulted in a stairwell in the Cathedral of Learning. The late afternoon attack – one of three sexual assaults Pitt has issued crime alerts for this academic year – sparked a protest of more than 100 students. A petition calling for greater security received thousands of signatures but was deleted after prompting concerns among students over increased policing. 

Students are now grappling with possible paths forward. On Monday, four students finished an open letter to Pitt demanding that the university consistently provide high-quality sexual assault prevention education, transparently enforce consequences for perpetrators and invest in emotional support counseling and trauma-informed care for survivors, among other action items. 

On college campuses, sexual violence more frequently occurs at parties and in fraternities – not academic buildings on Monday afternoons. The assault raises questions about how universities can prevent sexual violence and maintain openness to the public. Could awareness efforts have prevented this attack? Can increased security solve the cultural problems that perpetuate sexual violence?

The university is hosting a town hall with the Student Government Board on Wednesday to hear students’ concerns and the actions they’d like the university to take. The town hall will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. on the seventh floor of Alumni Hall. 

“There’s a lot of different solutions that are being proposed among students,” said Danielle Floyd, a senior and president of the Student Government Board. “But it’s a general consensus that something needs to come out of this.”

Students question Cathedral security

The university has not yet identified the perpetrator of the assault. The crime alert describes the suspect as a college-age male.

There were 75 security cameras in the Cathedral at the time of the assault as well as security and police patrols, Pitt Chief of Police James Loftus said in a statement. He did not state whether there were cameras in the stairwell where the assault occurred but said that Pitt is adding cameras and has placed security personnel in stairwells. Ted Fritz, vice chancellor for public safety and emergency management, said in an Oct. 7 message to the campus community that all buildings have security. 

A security camera sticks out from the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

On and off campus, 86 buildings feature security measures such as access control and intrusion detection, a Pitt department website states. There are also more than 1,000 closed circuit TV cameras across the Pittsburgh campus, and the university operates a police force that includes 89 commissioned officers and 49 security guards.

At a minimum, senior Mia Nitekman would like the university to require people to sign into campus buildings with their student ID.

She was one of at least 6,000 signatories of an anonymous petition that began to circulate among students after the university issued the crime alert on Oct. 6. The petition, which the creator had taken down as of Oct. 10, called for the university to generally restrict public access to campus buildings, reinstate swipe access and increase the use of security cameras, among other demands.

“We are a really nice open campus, which is great for tours and things,” she said, but the university should also put student safety first.

Loftus said the university is reviewing security policies and measures — including card access, communication methods and personnel deployment — “like we do after every incident.”

“As always, our priority and focus are the safety and well-being of the members of the Pitt community,” Loftus said. “To that end, all security measures are under review, and everything is on the table.”

A person waits for the elevator in Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

‘If I could take it all back, I promise I would’

Darrell Darnell, former senior associate vice president for safety and security and superintendent of police at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., doesn’t believe that universities should be closed off to the public. He served in those positions for a combined total of nine years.

“That really kind of goes against the grain of academia,” said Darnell, who is now an affiliated faculty member at Harvard University and an adjunct faculty member at Sam Houston State University in Texas. “You’re not going to be able to stop all crime, you’re just not. What you want to do is try to minimize it as best as you possibly can.”

He recommended that universities like Pitt station officers in key buildings while others conduct roving patrols. He listed several security measures that Pitt already has — from emergency call boxes to apps that allow students to quickly call campus police — as helpful.

Some students don’t see increased policing as a solution to sexual violence and have criticized their peers’ calls for greater security.

The creator of the security-focused petition deleted it partly due to the criticism. Some students at the protest expressed concern about increased policing on campus harming students of color, and some said they had negative experiences with Pitt Police responding to their reports of sexual assault, according to The Pitt News.

On an unofficial subreddit for Pitt students and alumni — where criticism of the petition also spread — a user who claimed to be a student apologized for creating the petition and wrote, “If I could take it all back, I promise I would.” The user wrote that they compiled the demands through social media and wanted to create positive change.

“I never, ever wanted to advocate for more on-campus cops. When I said more unarmed security, I meant like, people signing us in/out of dorms, people watching cameras,” the user wrote. “I very well know that not everyone, especially not [sexual assault] victims, can trust police, and that includes the Pitt Police.”

Alexa Miller, a junior and vice president of the Planned Parenthood Generation Action Club at Pitt, chose not to sign the petition but helped create the open letter to Pitt. She echoed the concerns over increased security and said that would likely fail to prevent most sexual assaults, 80% of which are committed by a person the survivor knows, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

“When we think about sexual assault, we often think of a person on the side of the street you don’t even know just sort of grabbing you. And granted, that is some cases, and I want to validate that,” Miller said. “But also, things like security cameras don’t get at a majority of sexual assaults on campus, unfortunately.”

People walk along the sidewalks leading to the Cathedral of Learning. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

While rape is an underreported crime, this fall’s Clery Act data shows that 16 rapes on the Pittsburgh campus — all occurring in residence halls — were reported to Pitt or police officials in 2021. In 2019, there were 11 reported rapes on campus property, seven of which occurred in dorms. (There was one reported on-campus rape in 2020, the height of the pandemic.)

Sophomore Katie Gallo signed the petition not because she viewed the demands as an exact solution, but because she wanted to show the university that sexual violence is a problem that deserves Pitt’s attention.

“I think by trying to implement one solution, we definitely shouldn’t create another problem,” she said of increased policing.

Solutions beyond security

Sexual assault is most effectively prevented when universities educate students on warning signs and ways to intervene, said Tracey Vitchers, executive director of It’s On Us, a national nonprofit focused on college sexual assault prevention.

But in recent years, universities have adopted online prevention education programs from for-profit companies that are easy for students to click through and fail to change their behaviors and attitudes, she said. She described the programs as “institutional risk management programs.”

“I want to live in a world where no student graduates college having experienced sexual assault, and you don’t get there through risk management, you get there through comprehensive prevention education,” she said.

Vitchers recommended that universities provide ongoing prevention education that’s targeted based on the campus’s specific needs and given in small, multiple doses. She specified that four to 10 sessions, held over the course of a year or two and lasting for about 30 minutes, are beneficial.

It can be a confusing and traumatic time. This guide can answer some questions about medical care, Title IX and counseling.

Universities should also prioritize engagement with male students — particularly those involved in the single-sex cultures of fraternities and athletics — and create safe spaces for tough conversations, she said.

“If we’re not calling young men in and giving them the tools and resources to be a part of these conversations in ways that feel psychologically safe to them or feel relevant to them, they’re going to tune it out,” Vitchers said.

On campus, student advocate Miller would like the university to better educate students on bystander intervention and provide greater survivor supports. She works as a peer educator for the SAFE program, which facilitated 30 workshops last academic year around topics such as sexual violence and consent. Overall, the conversations involved more than 800 students.

A person works in a window of the Cathedral of Learning. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

She’d also like Pitt to provide greater funding to the Title IX office.

“I think this needs to be a priority for Pitt, and they need to put their money where their mouth is,” Miller said.

Among its education efforts, Pitt requires new students to participate in a sexual assault prevention suite by the for-profit company EVERFI. The university also hosts three mandatory, in-person events that discuss topics including sexual violence and bystander intervention, and residence hall staff facilitate conversations with students about sexual misconduct and Title IX.

Carrie Benson, senior manager for prevention and education in Pitt’s Office of Civil Rights and Title IX, said in a statement that the university’s sexual misconduct prevention initiatives will continue as planned.

Pitt is conducting bystander intervention training in classes for first-year students and is coordinating two sexual misconduct prevention programs for student organizations, Benson said. A university spokesperson said Pitt has awarded Benson funding of up to $75,000 to support prevention research and programming.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning rises beyond Forbes Ave., Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022, in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Listening to students

Floyd, the president of the Student Government Board, said the recent assault reaffirms the importance of student organizations connecting with students to create grassroots change and make clear that sexual violence is unacceptable.

In addition to the town hall, Floyd said her organization is also planning to create an ad-hoc committee focused specifically on tackling sexual assault at Pitt.

“I know everyone is very quick to want to demand action right now, but I think at this point, it’s just so hard to concretely say, ‘This is what the student body wants,’” Floyd said. “We want to have actual, practical solutions that we think could work rather than just reacting.”

Megan Schroeder, director of victim response at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape [PAAR], recommended that Pitt provide multiple avenues for students to offer recommendations, as not all students may be comfortable speaking out at the town hall.

“We want to allow those impacted to have input, and to trust students to know what’s best for them,” Schroeder said in a statement. She offered PAAR as a willing participant in discussions.

Darnell also highlighted the importance of conversations with students. He said Pitt should avoid a knee-jerk reaction to the incident and instead consider the amount of crime that has historically occurred on campus.

Nitekman is not sure what the best course of action is for the university. She’s also concerned about over-policing. But she knows how she wants to feel on campus.

“I want to feel protected by this university.”

Emma Folts covers higher education for PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.