Pittsburgh-area universities and career schools are taking new steps this fall to tackle a pervasive problem: sexual violence.

A new state requirement has led trade and career schools to ramp up their programming on sexual violence prevention, and it’s prompting more training for faculty and staff at universities across town. The universities are also making use of substantial grants they’ve received for prevention work in recent years, deploying a response team and, potentially, expanding resources for survivors of domestic violence.

There’s an urgency to this work. While sexual violence happens throughout the academic year, more than half of assaults occur in the time between the start of the fall semester and Thanksgiving break. This period of time is known as The Red Zone, and women, students of color and LGBTQ students are most vulnerable during it. 

Here’s a breakdown of what’s changed in the last year at local universities and schools:

A new law ushers in more partnerships and training

A state law (Act 55 of 2022) enacted last summer required all higher education institutions to enter into memoranda of understanding [MOUs] with at least one local rape crisis center and domestic violence program. Each institution was directed to use the agreements to develop their policies, training and programming on sexual misconduct by the start of this academic year. 

“Offices change, people in roles change. But the MOU is meant to withstand any changes so that the students that need services aren’t at the whim of who’s in what role and who knows who,” said Alyssa Pietropaolo, civil rights compliance officer at the Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC].

Each institution must also work with the partner rape crisis center and domestic violence program to offer a sexual violence awareness program that includes, among other requirements:

  • Discussions of consent and types of abuse
  • Information on reporting and the importance of seeking medical treatment after an assault
  • Introductions of members of local or campus law enforcement 

A follow-up educational program is also required. Institutions must self-report compliance with the law to the state Department of Education. 

For CCAC and many of the larger universities in Pittsburgh, the law formalized existing partnerships and programming with local organizations. 

Chatham University formed agreements with Pittsburgh Action Against Rape [PAAR] and the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. Chatham wants to expand its prevention programming, and the law will help the university make the most of existing partnerships, said Chris Purcell, vice president of student affairs and dean of students. 

Will McGinnis, director of education and prevention at PAAR, said the law’s requirement of collaboration between universities and rape crisis centers is positive, but it’s still a “pretty low-level bar they have to hit.” The language around collaboration is broad, he said, and he believes it’s too early to tell whether the law will foster more effective prevention work from universities.

But for some of the region’s smaller trade and career schools, it was the impetus for establishing relationships and offering more substantial prevention programming, said Tyler Dague, the communications strategist for the Center for Victims.

The center – which provides counseling, advocacy and legal support to survivors of crime in Allegheny County – formed agreements with nine trade schools and technical colleges. All of those were new partnerships, which is “fantastic for outreach,” Dague said. 

“Every single person that becomes aware of not only our services, but all of the services that are available, becomes an advocate for you,” he said. 

Bidwell Training Center, a career school, had already established prevention programming and had been “operating in a fairly significant way to support compliance” with the law, Vice President Kimberly Rassau said. Still, the Center for Victims reviewed all of the training center’s prevention programming and policies and trained its faculty and staff on responding to sexual harassment and violence. 

Over the next year, Dague aims to gather feedback from the schools to potentially tweak the center’s support. He wants to make it easy for the schools to comply with the law so they view it as an opportunity to connect students to resources – not “an annoying obligation.”

The Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh is expanding the training and resources it provides university faculty and staff through the law. STANDING FIRM, a national program that the center operates, educates employers on the signs of intimate partner violence and reviews their policies for supporting survivors in the workplace. 

The program is now working with local universities for the first time. 

The University of Pittsburgh, for example, is partnering with STANDING FIRM to offer three one-hour training sessions, and a four-hour intensive program, on the ways faculty and staff can recognize abuse and support students and colleagues who disclose. Attendance for both is optional. 

Mary Onufer, senior account executive at STANDING FIRM, said that the expanding partnership “fills a gap” in higher education. Title IX, the federal civil rights law, does not provide recourse when faculty, staff and students are abused off-campus, if the misconduct occurs outside of the university’s educational program or activity. 

Onufer previously taught at Carlow University. When students or colleagues share that they’ve been abused, “it’s really devastating when you don’t know how to help,” she said. “Basically, we’re just trying to put those supports in place before it happens.”  

Universities bolster prevention work with grants funding 

Money is also flowing to several universities for prevention work. 

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded Point Park University a $300,000 grant, for use over a three-year period, to help address sexual violence, stalking and dating violence on campus. With that, Point Park formed a team of on- and off-campus partners who meet twice a semester and oversee the university’s prevention and education efforts.

The team, which began meeting in spring 2022, includes representatives from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, Pittsburgh Regional Transit and PAAR, as well as university officials and campus police. Their work will continue this academic year. 

“If we have a case for stalking, for example, I can go to the Port Authority and say, ‘Hey, are you able to provide footage? We have a student that was in this area at such and such a time,’” said Maria Lewis, the project director for the university’s grant. 

CCAC plans to create “stopgap kits” of basic resources for students who’ve recently fled domestic violence using a $55,000 state grant. Students at CCAC tend to be older than those at four-year universities – the average student is 27 years old – which means they’re likely more vulnerable to domestic abuse, Pietropaolo said. 

At Pitt, Carrie Benson, senior manager for prevention and education in the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, received a $500,000 internal grant from the university this summer to fund sexual violence prevention and survivor support efforts over three years. 

The funding comes after an academic year that saw many students express outrage and concern over sexual violence at the university. In October 2022, a female Pitt student was reportedly assaulted in a stairwell in the Cathedral of Learning. Students organized a protest, issued demands for change and expressed dissatisfaction with administrators’ responses. 

That year, the university provided dialogue-oriented prevention programming – where students sit in a circle with a facilitator and talk about consent, boundary-setting and healthy relationships – to about 20 student organizations. Benson’s office plans to use the grant to hire more facilitators for the program, which Pitt is offering to some freshmen this year and intends to expand to Greek organizations. 

Along with funding the grant, Pitt hired Campos, a marketing research firm, to conduct focus groups with students at the end of the fall 2022 semester. The firm asked students about their awareness of campus resources and barriers to seeking help, finding that students are often unsure about who is required to share disclosures of sexual violence with the Title IX office.

To help address that, Pitt is posting flyers in all its public restrooms to explain the reporting process and plans to post a video on the topic on social media.

“This year,” said Benson, “we have been particularly focused on bringing student voice into everything that we do.” 

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Erin Yudt.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.