Right now, Pittsburgh universities are moving out of the Red Zone — the period of time between the start of the semester and Thanksgiving break when more than half of sexual assaults among college students occur. 

More than half of sexual assaults among college students occur in the fall. Resources, survivor stories and investigation into what’s being done to protect those at risk in the Pittsburgh area. Explore the series.

PublicSource began investigating sexual and gender-based violence on Pittsburgh college campuses months before this year’s Red Zone began. Our reporting continued as it unfolded, highlighting survivors’ stories, revealing barriers to healing and justice and explaining available resources.

This fall’s Red Zone was a breaking point at the University of Pittsburgh. At the beginning of October, a female student was reportedly assaulted in a stairwell in the Cathedral of Learning. Since then, students have organized a protest, issued demands for change and expressed dissatisfaction with administrators’ responses.  

Sexual violence on college campuses does not end when the Red Zone is over, and neither will our reporting on this topic. As we look back on the period when students are statistically most vulnerable, here’s what we’ve learned so far. 

Educational efforts and existing resources fall short despite attempts to fill the gaps.

In the last decade, universities across the country have invested in education and prevention and have strengthened their Title IX offices. Yet, students and survivors who spoke with PublicSource identified shortcomings in those efforts. 

At a town hall on sexual violence held Oct. 19, several Pitt students said existing campus resources can be ineffective, unhelpful or uncomfortable for students to pursue.

Several Pitt students have called on their university to provide improved prevention education. Some would like Pitt to provide mandatory education to Greek organizations or to all students each year. One student at the town hall noted that Pitt developed a mandatory course on anti-Black racism amid protests over George Floyd’s murder and questioned if Pitt would take similar action in relation to sexual violence.

University of Pittsburgh students Audrika Khondaker, left, 20, a neuroscience major, and Scarlett Hudson, 20, a biology and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies double major, stand for a portrait in Alumni Hall, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, in Oakland. The two students were coming from a university-hosted town hall with the Student Government Board for students to share their concerns and suggestions in response to a sexual assault that occurred at the school’s Cathedral of Learning weeks prior. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

At Carnegie Mellon University, Ph.D. candidate and Graduate Student Assembly President Divyansh Kaushik took issue with the timing of the university’s Title IX education. Students learn about Title IX upon arrival, when many are adjusting to campus and receiving an onslaught of new information.

Tracey Vitchers, executive director of It’s On Us, a national nonprofit dedicated to college sexual assault prevention, recommended that universities provide continuous prevention education that’s targeted based on the campus’s specific needs. She said that four to 10 sessions, held over the course of a year or two and lasting for about 30 minutes, are helpful. 

The Title IX process can retraumatize survivors and pose challenges for administrators.

Title IX is a civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in universities that receive federal funding. When a survivor seeks recourse from their university through Title IX, the process can be emotionally taxing and drawn-out. 

One survivor at Pitt found the investigatory process following her Title IX report to be retraumatizing. Another survivor who attended Chatham University thought the reporting process would help her find closure, but it ultimately felt like a dead end. A third survivor at Pitt wished the process wasn’t so slow-moving. 

However, one student at Pitt told PublicSource she felt the investigators handled her case professionally and took her experience seriously, though the process was uncomfortable. 

University of Pittsburgh student Mia Larkin poses for a portrait on campus on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Negative perceptions among students of how the system treats survivors also pose barriers to reporting. A student at the Pitt town hall said that, “Most of us don’t go [to Title IX] because they don’t believe it works,” according to The Pitt News.

Universities believe their responsibility is to be fair to both parties and operate with a presumption of innocence.

“Generally, no party is happy at the end of that process, no matter the outcome,” said Vanessa Love, Point Park University’s assistant vice president of compliance and integrity and its Title IX coordinator. Even if an assailant is found responsible, the survivor may be disappointed with the sanction, she noted.

Administrators have experienced challenges in navigating their responsibilities under Title IX, too. Notable challenges include finding required advisers for all parties, ensuring both an expedient and thorough investigation and helping international students understand the law’s protections. 

Social stigma and campus culture harm survivors.

Victim-blaming and stigma around sexual violence remain real and persistent, both on college campuses and in broader society. 

Several survivors who spoke with PublicSource blamed themselves for their experiences or questioned whether what happened to them constituted assault. A survivor who attended Chatham believed her experience was her fault and felt that she wasn’t a “perfect victim.” She didn’t report for two years.

The attitudes and behaviors of survivors’ friends and classmates can be harmful. One survivor sought to tell her female friends about her assault, only to find that the friends she met through her assailant continued to spend time with him.

“People just need to be really aware of their actions, how they affect the people around them, how they’re making the other people around them feel,” she said. 

Universities are unsure of the full extent of sexual violence.

Because of underreporting, data on the pervasiveness of sexual violence and harassment is often incomplete. Universities don’t know exactly how deep the issues are. 

Pitt’s student body on the Pittsburgh campus stood at 33,230 as of fall 2021, and the university’s Clery Act data shows that 16 rapes were reported on campus that calendar year. CMU enrolled 15,057 students in fall 2021 and reported one rape that year.

Chatham University photographed on Sept. 26, 2022, in Shadyside. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Higher numbers may actually indicate improved trust among students in their institution, said Chris Purcell, Chatham’s vice president of student affairs and dean of students. 

“Lower numbers of people reporting might mean that your systems, your reporting structures aren’t adequate enough for students to know about them,” he said. “So often, campuses that do a better job at getting their resources out there, their Clery reports and their other reports will indicate larger numbers of sexual harassment and assault.” 

Chatham reported three cases of rape on its Shadyside campus in 2019, two cases in 2020 and no cases in 2021, according to Clery Act data. Chatham had a student population of 2,439 as of fall 2021.

Tackling sexual violence requires safe spaces for men and, according to students, accountability.

Universities need to ensure their sexual assault prevention education engages their male students, said Vitchers of It’s On Us. More than 90% of sexual assaults on campus are committed by about 5% of the male student population, according to a recent report from the organization. And while female students are more likely to be victimized, 9.3% of male students experience sexual violence as well, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network [RAINN].

Providing engaging, in-person prevention education and creating a campus environment where men feel integrated and connected with students of other genders could help, according to the report. It’s On Us found that its male student participants wanted to help others — they just didn’t know how. Participants were unaware of the extent of sexual violence on campus and felt that educational programs did not engage them.

“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. 

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

Mila Sanina contributed to this report.

Our process:

For this project, conducted over six months, PublicSource held interviews in person, on the phone and via Zoom with survivors and then worked with them to corroborate their accounts to the extent possible. We asked for any notes, legal documents, journal entries, emails and texts and/or asked to be connected with people in whom survivors confided at the time. The provided documentation was used to further detail the survivors’ experiences and provide independent verification for our robust fact-checking process.

Reporting on sexual violence requires journalists to adhere to standards of accuracy and fairness while mitigating harm and the retraumatization of survivors. 

PublicSource reporters adhered to industry best practices for trauma-informed reporting, including those developed by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. From the onset, reporters strived to ensure survivors understood how their stories may be shared in the project and remained in touch as the reporting process continued. 

They practiced empathetic interviewing and worked with survivors to determine how they’d like to be identified. In journalism, anonymity is typically granted to people who have experienced sexual violence. PublicSource provided varying levels of anonymity to those who have shared their stories of sexual violence with us to respect wishes for privacy and to prevent further trauma. Their identities are known to us, and the information they’ve shared has been vetted.

The reporters also reviewed the profiles with the survivors, reading back quotes for accuracy, in an effort to ensure they felt in control of how their stories were told. They remained open to survivors’ comfort levels with participation changing and, as needed, provided opportunities to decide if they’d like to continue.

PublicSource is grateful to the survivors for going through this process with us and sharing their stories with the Pittsburgh community to improve understanding of the risks of sexual violence and its effects on college campuses.

Explore this series

The Red Zone

More than half of sexual assaults among college students occur in the fall. Resources, survivor stories and investigation into what’s being done to protect those at risk in the Pittsburgh area.

Do you feel more informed?

Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.

Emma is a higher education reporter for PublicSource. In her role, she collaborates with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on bolstering higher education coverage in local communities. Emma is...