Content warning: This story contains references to sexual violence.

He was a popular senior. Katie was a freshman at Point Park University. He hosted a big party at his house in Oakland. 

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.

Katie’s friends and classmates, who had also stayed behind for spring break in Pittsburgh, headed there. She drank a little bit too much, too quickly. A bunch of the seniors put her to bed on a futon upstairs in one of the empty bedrooms. 

She told PublicSource in a September interview that she woke up in the dark to the host of the party trying to get in bed with her. He was naked. Still feeling intoxicated, Katie heard him say: “You were flirting with me all night. You want this.”

She felt him trying to hold her down and get on top of her. Katie pushed and screamed and kicked her way out. 

It was spring 2008. Following the assault, Katie didn’t know where to go to receive resources at Point Park; it was before the university had a dedicated Title IX officer. She wonders what would have been different if there had been more resources for her back then. PublicSource is not using Katie’s full name to protect her identity. 

Title IX — a federal law that protects people from discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs and schools— was more than three decades old in 2008. But it was still three years before federal guidance expanded the scope of the law to cover sexual harassment and violence. 

In the past decade, the federal government has expected universities to prevent and mitigate sexual violence and harassment while being fair to all parties through a complicated process. The process can be traumatic and drawn out, but there are positive trends. Title IX offices are more visible and active in sexual misconduct cases and, in some Pittsburgh-area universities, students are more knowledgeable about how to report sexual misconduct and what resources may be available to them.  

Challenges remain. From prevention to addressing effects of sexual violence, about 50 students, advocates and administrators interviewed for this series identified successes, gaps and nodes of discontent. 

Looking back, Katie said she tried to do what she could on her own, including telling a few friends and classmates about her experience to make sure what happened to her didn’t happen to others. 

A decade of seesaw changes

Since Katie’s assault, a lot has changed in how universities in the Pittsburgh area talk about sexual violence, try to prevent it, adjudicate it and address its effects. Title IX has been the biggest driver of that change. Though the federal civil rights law passed in 1972, many of the changes started in 2011.

President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden led a major shift through the Department of Education by issuing a “Dear Colleague” letter, which held the schools accountable, for the first time, to their enforcement of Title IX as it pertains to sexual violence and harassment. 

In response, universities created and beefed up Title IX offices. They increased staffing specifically around compliance and in offices related to equity, diversity and inclusion. They invested in education and prevention programming. 

Public and private universities now facilitate peer education efforts, bystander intervention training and discussions about consent and partner violence. They distribute stickers, booklets, T-shirts and pens. Some facilitate student surveys. There are special committees, tabling events and Title IX online modules. 

However, the Trump administration in 2020 overhauled the Title IX rules. It changed the process and limited the scope of what can be considered harassment and what sexual violence cases could be investigated. The Biden administration’s guidelines for Title IX are expected to come out soon.   

A few administrators acknowledged challenges with the current Trump-era Title IX guidelines, and many are bracing for change. 

Just two years out from implementing the changes under the Trump administration, universities are waiting “to hear from reputable sources of what changes are likely to be happening,” said Jacqueline Smith, the Title IX coordinator at Carlow University. “We’ll be preparing for those all the way through.”

After sexual violence happens: Gaps and what works

The Title IX changes ushered in after the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter have helped, advocates said. But right now, in spite of formalized procedures and protocols, some Pittsburgh-area students say higher education institutions struggle to hold rapists and other assailants accountable and mitigate the effects of sexual violence on campus. 

Some students who reported sexual violence to universities said they felt alone and not supported by their institution. They said the university presented itself as a neutral party, even though they emphasize support for survivors in public messaging. 

“We are still believing first, but we have a responsibility to the whole community to be as objective as possible.”

Jacqueline Smith, Title IX coordinator at Carlow University

Universities, on the other hand, say they need to presume innocence and be fair to all parties.

“We have to make sure that we’re giving each person all the rights that are afforded to them,” said Vanessa Love, Point Park University’s assistant vice president of compliance and integrity and its Title IX coordinator. 

Smith, of Carlow, agreed. 

“The intent is that objectivity that allows for a fundamental fairness until there is an investigation completed and a finding that happens. … We are still believing first, but we have a responsibility to the whole community to be as objective as possible.”

Sharing the details despite doubts

Some survivors believe their universities have taken their experiences seriously and have handled their cases well.

Those who choose to file a Title IX complaint are sometimes frustrated at the lack of clarity about the timeline or even worried how the university will respond after they file a report. 

One survivor, who asked PublicSource to conceal her identity, filed a Title IX complaint at Pitt but then had to wait for months for progress on her case. She said she felt like they took something from her.

“I gave them quite a testimony. Like it took a lot for me to do that,” she said. “And then when it came down to it, they kind of just took all that information and didn’t do anything to help me.”

And some survivors say the hearing for Title IX, which is similar to a court procedure, can be retraumatizing. 

“And then when it came down to it, they kind of just took all that information and didn’t do anything to help me.”

university of pittsburgh student survivor

The hearing process can also manifest inequities, according to Katie Shipp, law partner at the Marsh Law Firm. While some students’ families can afford elite legal representation, others cannot. The university would have to provide them with an adviser, but they wouldn’t have to be a lawyer. 

As a result, those who can afford legal representation are more protected than those who cannot. 

Often, universities bring in an investigator and independent decision-maker on the cases to ensure fairness. But some survivors feel that the burden of reporting and providing evidence and testimony is mostly on them. If the complaint moves forward, there is cross-examination, which Smith at Carlow has seen as a challenge. 

“We found that it isn’t that people don’t want to tell their story. It’s how many times and how many ways they’re made to tell their story if they go to a full hearing,” Smith said. “When you ask them to make a formal complaint, which is the thing that triggers an investigation, when they learn about what that can mean, they don’t want to do that.” 

Gray areas and disappearing Snaps

Beyond the investigatory challenges, universities also encounter obstacles in enforcing protections. 

If the Title IX investigation finds the perpetrator guilty, a disciplinary party issues a no-contact order. Enforcement of that order, though, is complicated. Two survivors told PublicSource that no-contact orders were violated in their cases. 

Retribution for that is unclear, according to legal sources. The violation of no-contact orders is often handled by the student conduct office. But one survivor, a former student at Duquesne University, told PublicSource that her no-contact order was not specific enough and didn’t extend to the physical stalking she experienced.   

Also vague: The geographic reach of Title IX. Under Trump’s guidance for Title IX, universities can choose not to pursue cases of off-campus sexual violence even if it’s among students.

Often, students just want to switch dorms and not take the same classes with their assailants. Verbose and confusing instructions about the process may turn some students away from reporting.  

Online harassment is another gray area. What if stalking or psychological abuse happens on Instagram or Snapchat, where messages automatically disappear? 

Most universities say they care deeply about addressing stalking and misogynistic behaviors on social media. 

Katie Pope, an associate vice chancellor of Civil Rights and Title IX at Pitt, said “harassment is harassment regardless of the medium.” The online communication leaves a trail in some cases, Pope said, and that can help with the investigation. She said the university sometimes connects victims of online harassment to police. 

How do higher ed institutions prevent sexual violence?

Students from traditionally marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ+ students and students with disabilities, are disproportionately affected by sexual violence on campus, according to a 2019 Association of American Universities [AAU] survey of campus climate. Many international students come from cultures where talking about sex is taboo. There are students of all backgrounds who never had sex education in high school.

“Every year we hear about students who come to our mandatory prevention programs, and it’s maybe the first time that they’ve ever had a conversation about sexual violence or even consent,” said Carrie Benson, Pitt’s senior manager for prevention and education.  

How can universities address those gaps?

Tailored sexual education would meet students of different backgrounds where they are, but today, the online instruction is largely the same for everyone. That’s something that Benson wants to change.

Some students raised concerns about how prevention-based education still mostly focuses on bystanders and potential victims, not on potential perpetrators. PublicSource heard from multiple students who said it should be more focused on the latter. 

Carlow and Chatham are programming initiatives specifically tailored for athletes to prevent and address sexual violence.

At Pitt, Benson’s office does NCAA-mandated training with athletic teams. 

Divyansh Kaushik, a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University and president of the Graduate Student Assembly, is concerned about what he sees as a lack of practical action and education to address and discuss sexual harassment, prevention and sexual violence at CMU. 

Divyansh Kaushik, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University and president of the Graduate Student Assembly, is concerned about a lack of practical action and education to address and discuss sexual harassment, prevention and sexual violence at CMU. He stands for a photo on campus on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Kaushik also believes there’s a problem in how and when students are presented with the information. Students get a Title IX orientation when they arrive at CMU. But that happens when they are being bombarded by new information and are often acclimating to a new place in a new town. 

“Some of these students are coming from abstinence-only districts,” he said. “For some of them, this is not even something you talk about.”

Involving faculty and staff is key, but Kaushik said it’s unclear what kind of continuing education they get. 

Some universities, like Chatham, have standing committees and faculty involvement. 

At Pitt, Benson said she believes that sexual assault prevention goes even beyond universities. 

“We have to stop thinking about this as a women’s issue and that it’s up to women to address and instead recognize that all communities are affected by sexual violence,” she said. 

Measuring success

Tracking the scale of sexual violence on Pittsburgh-area campuses remains tricky. 

Universities are required to collect on-campus and certain non-campus crime data, including sexual violence, through the Clery Act — a federal statute that applies to all colleges and universities that receive federal funding — but the data is often limited due to the underreported nature of these crimes. Pitt, for example, has a total student population of 28,234 and reported 42 cases of rape between 2016 and 2020. According to Clery data, one case was reported in 2020 when there was limited activity on campus during the pandemic. 

During the Sept. 23 meeting of the Board of Trustees, Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher reported the increased number of reports of all types to the Title IX office across all campuses as a sign of trust. The number of reports doubled in 2022 compared to the prior year. 

Caption: Number of Title IX complaints across Pitt’s campuses, including those related to sexual violance and harassment.

With a total student population of 15,818, CMU reported 39 cases of rape from 2016 to 2020, with three cases reported in 2020, according to its Clery data. 

The 2019 AAU survey of campus climate across 33 research universities, including Pitt and CMU, provides a fuller picture. According to the survey, 26.9% of Pitt’s undergraduate women experienced penetration or sexual touching involving physical force and/or inability to consent or stop what was happening since entering college. 

In the CMU-specific survey, almost 24% of undergraduate women said they experienced nonconsensual sexual contact, compared to 9% of graduate women. Of the graduate students surveyed, about 40% were familiar with the Title IX office compared to 82% of undergraduate students. 

The survey was sobering for CMU, Kaushik said. 

“We held two town hall meetings after the 2019 AAU report came out — nothing after that,” he said. “Not a single mention, not a single town hall, not a single email talking about Title IX, about our commitment to preventing sexual misconduct on campus.” 

CMU, in a statement emailed by its spokesman, said that in the beginning of the pandemic, the office created student-focused online programming “about new policies and how to intervene in unsafe situations.” The university also cited an August 2020 email from the provost about the updated sexual misconduct policy in response to the new federal Title IX guidelines.  

Carlow University provided PublicSource with information on its Title IX caseload. Between August 2017 and August 2022, there were a total of 12 cases reported to the Title IX office, and some of the complaints included multiple forms of sexual violence. 

Other universities in the region didn’t provide any Title IX caseload-specific data. Some referred PublicSource to the Clery Act data.

Chris Purcell, Chatham’s vice president of student affairs and dean of students, said higher numbers of Title IX complaints and incidents of sexual harassment and violence may, counterintuitively, signal improved trust in the institutions and process. 

“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.”

Mila Sanina is an independent journalist and assistant teaching professor of journalism. She can be reached at mila.sanina@gmail.com.

Emma Folts contributed to this story.

This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.

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.

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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.

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Mila Sanina served from 2016-2021 as the executive director of PublicSource, a nonprofit, non-partisan newsroom delivering public-service journalism in the Pittsburgh region at publicsource.org. Under...