Students urged to put safety first as semester begins

August 22, 2014

The start of fall semester can be a wonderful time of new beginnings, especially for first-year students who are entering a new phase of their lives. As they say good-bye to their parents and settle into their residence halls, new students typically are excited to explore their surroundings and meet new people.

Unfortunately, the start of fall semester also brings with it reasons for caution. According to the National Institute of Justice’s 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, the highest rates of campus sexual assault are in September and October, a time period known as the "red zone."

"The first six weeks of the fall semester are called 'the red zone' because more sexual assaults occur on and around campuses during this time than any other," said Peggy Lorah, director of Penn State's Center for Women Students.

"In the midst of the excitement at the beginning of a new year, it is important to remember to pay attention to personal safety," she said, emphasizing that the most important component of personal safety is community responsibility. "We all need to be active bystanders and to intervene when we see situations that concern us. There are lots of opportunities for students to play an active role in the prevention of sexual assault, such as becoming involved in peer education and advocacy," she said.

Penn State's Rock Ethics Institute has a wealth of information on its website on the topic of bystander intervention, including a Bystander Intervention Playbook containing  tips for intervening in situations that may lead to sexual assault. According to the website, "Active bystanders take the initiative to help someone who may be targeted for a sexual assault by a predator. Active bystanders also take the initiative to help friends who aren't thinking clearly from becoming perpetrators of crime."

The basic principle behind bystander intervention is to do what you would want someone to do for you. Some bystander intervention strategies found in the playbook include:

-- Defensive Split: Step in and separate the two people. Let them know your concerns and reasons for intervening. Be a friend and let them know you are acting in their best interest. Make sure each person makes it home safely.

-- Pick and Roll: Use a distraction to redirect the focus somewhere else, such as, “Hey, I need to talk to you,” or “Hey, this party is lame. Let’s go somewhere else.”

-- The Option: Evaluate the situation and people involved to determine your best move. You could directly intervene yourself, or alert friends of each person to come in and help. If the person reacts badly, try a different approach.

-- Full Court Press: Recruit the help of friends of both people to step in as a group.

-- Fumblerooski: Divert the attention of one person away from the other person. Have someone standing by to redirect the other person’s focus (see “Pick and Roll”). Commit a party foul (i.e. spilling your drink) if you need to.

The Center for Women Students also is a valuable resource, both for information and support. Located in 204 Boucke Building on the University Park campus, the center supports all students who have been impacted by sexual violence, relationship violence, stalking, harassment, and other campus climate issues. The staff assists students through education, advocacy, referrals and crisis intervention/support counseling. Information on its website includes actions for people to take to promote safety on campus.

"We encourage students to remember that consent needs to be present in every sexual encounter and to make responsible choices about alcohol use, since alcohol is involved in 85 to 90 percent of all campus sexual assaults," Lorah said. "It is important to remember that anyone can be a victim of sexual assault, and anyone can be an assailant."

One additional tool designed with safety in mind is a new smartphone app called Circle of 6, available for multiple smartphone platforms. The free app, which is mentioned in the White House report, puts a group of friends instantly in touch with each other, so someone in trouble can send a "come and get me" message, complete with a GPS location map. The app also connects the user to national hotlines, emergency numbers and online information.

Penn State is doing a lot to address the problem of sexual assault.

All incoming first-year students are required to complete an online training module dealing with sexual assault awareness before arriving on campus. Penn State AWARE is designed to educate students about sexual assault and sexual harassment, and to develop practical safety skills. The training module takes about 45 minutes to complete, and is offered in conjunction with Penn State SAFE, an online alcohol education program.

According to the Center for Women Students website, the University also:

-- Ensures access to medical care. The University will pay for all basic rape-related care at Mount Nittany Medical Center and Student Health Services.

-- Provides a dusk-to-dawn SAFE WALK for a safer alternative to walking alone. Call 865-WALK to arrange for an escort.

-- Provides the services of a victim resource officer through the Department of University Safety.

-- Provides assistance, advocacy, and educational programming through the Center for Women Students.

-- Provides sexual assault counseling, including crisis services, through Counseling and Psychological Services.

-- Offers the "trauma drop," a procedure for the retroactive withdrawal from semesters or dropping of courses, for victims of violence. Contact Counseling and Psychological Services or the Center for Women Students for more information.

-- Includes a Policy Statement on Sexual Assault and Abuse in the Code of Conduct, which specifies that "The Pennsylvania State University will not tolerate sexual assault or abuse, such as rape (including acquaintance rape) or other forms of non-consensual sexual activity. These acts degrade the victims, our campus community, and society in general. While the University cannot control all the factors in society that lead to sexual assault and abuse, the University strives to create an environment that is free of acts of violence." Violations of the policy are subject to disciplinary proceedings through the Office of Student Conduct.

Several resources are available to those who have experienced sexual assault and relationship violence:


Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape
Statewide hotline: 800-692-7445, TTY 877-585-1091
24-hour information and referral line: 888-772-PCAR

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)
24-hour hotline: 800-656-HOPE


Penn State's Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Hotline
Available 24/7 at all campuses and staffed by trained counselors
800-550-7575, TTY: 886-714-7177

Commonwealth Campuses Sexual Assault Resources


Center for Women Students
The center serves all Penn State students who have experienced sexual assault and/or relationship violence.

Centre County Women’s Resource Center

Counseling and Psychological Center (CAPS) 

Office of Student Conduct (OSC)

University Title IX Coordinator

University Health Services (UHS) Sexual Assault Services

Telephone Numbers for University Park Sexual Assault Resources

Medical services:
-- University Ambulance Service, dial 911 (identify yourself as a student)
-- Mount Nittany Medical Center, emergency department, 814-234-6110
-- University Health Services, 814-863-0774
-- Telephone advice nurse (24 hours a day), 814-863-0774, option 2

Counseling services:
-- Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), 814-863-0395
-- Centre County Can Help, 800-643-5432 (Crisis Line)
-- Centre County Women's Resource Center, 814-234-5050

Advocacy, information and support:
-- Center for Women Students, 814-863-2027
-- Victim Resource Officer (Penn State Police), 814-863-1907
-- Student and Family Emergency Line: 814-863-2020
-- Title IX Coordinator for the University: 814-863-0471

Police and safety services:
-- Penn State Police Service, 814-863-1111
-- State College Borough Police, 814-234-7150
-- Penn State SAFE WALK (dusk to dawn), 814-865-WALK

Last Updated August 22, 2014