When I was invited to attend Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s press conference at West Chester University on Thursday, Aug. 31, I immediately jumped onto the opportunity and naturally found myself looking forward to it.
It was around 11 a.m. in Sykes 10A when Shapiro announced a campus safety initiative focused on addressing drug and alcohol abuse, sexual assault and mental health awareness. He explained the plan to host a series of roundtable discussions at Pennsylvania colleges, specifically Dickinson College, Lincoln University, Slippery Rock University and University of Pittsburgh.
But by the time the press conference came to an end, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what was originally meant to be a simple news article would turn into something else. After all, what essentially felt like a PR event no longer seemed particularly newsworthy.
There were several other speakers aside from Shapiro at the press conference, including Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan. When he began talking about how, if one looked up the word idiot they would find a picture of a 20-year-old man, I idly thought to myself, “Huh, okay, I wonder where he’s going with this.” He then tacked on that one would also find a picture of a 20-year-old woman, and this was the moment where I first started to tense up.
Hogan went on to remark that combining these two, along with alcohol and/or drugs, could be “the devil’s brew.” I paused in my note taking, thrown by the strange, random phrase that he emphasized multiple times. While he condemned men who committed acts of sexual assault, he also said that women must protect themselves.
“To young ladies, we say, ‘Two a.m. in a fraternity basement, drunk and without your friends, is no place to be,’” said Hogan. “You are not surrounded by gentlemen at that point.”
Hogan spoke with sincere intentions, I’m sure, but this doesn’t change the fact that his words played right into the subtle, pervasive nature of rape culture. I can’t help but be reminded of this time last year when WCU President Chris Fiorentino rightfully came under fire for an email he sent regarding sexual assault. In this email, Fiorentino announced that public safety would be conducting random sobriety checks, implying that alcohol is what causes rape. Although Fiorentino later issued a clarification, Hogan’s comments were like an echo of the initial memo.
By the time the last person spoke and they opened the floor for journalists’ questions, my mind was racing with thoughts in every direction. Before the event I had tentatively planned on asking about alcohol abuse, but Hogan’s language, which lingered with hints of victim blaming, had struck a chord with me. Here they were announcing a plan that was meant to be “trauma-informed,” as per a press release on Shapiro’s website, and to encourage survivors and advocates to come forward, but how could such people feel comfortable doing so when those involved didn’t even appear to get it?
As a student journalist, I was given the chance to ask the first question. This is along the lines of what I initially said to Shapiro: “As you said yourself, sexual assault is vastly underreported. I think it is fair to say some of the main reasons for this are because survivors who do come forward have to deal with victim blaming, including from law enforcement officers, and rarely see actual justice. Are law enforcement officers being trained in any capacity to try and minimize victim blaming? And, going forward, how can survivors expect to see more justice when we know that the majority of sexual assaults are not ‘violent’ and are committed by people who have some sort of relationships with those they attack, and we know these cases are apparently harder to convict?”
Thanking me for my question, Shapiro answered by saying that survivors should “trust the process” they go through when reporting. I was baffled since I had just brought up Brock Turner, but didn’t press for more, instead wanting to give others the chance to ask their questions as well.
But aside from another student with WCU Weekly, there was only one professional journalist who bothered to ask anything. So once it became clear no one else planned on speaking, I jumped back in with, “How would you encourage survivors to trust the process when, as I said before, it so rarely works for them?”
Shapiro’s response was brief and felt more like a dodge than anything else. I had quite a few more questions I wanted to ask, but it was clear as day that they were trying to wrap everything up as quickly as possible. It was disappointing, but not what perturbed me the most.
After being pulled in for a few pictures with Shapiro, I began gathering my belongings. During this time, I was approached by not one, not two, but three men, all at separate times. The first was a law enforcement officer, the second was a man from Shapiro’s office, and I didn’t catch the name or position of the third, but he had been one of the speakers.
They all took me aside for the same reason, which was to talk about the great work that they’ve done and the successful cases they’ve worked on: One brought up the prosecution of Jerry Sandusky, and another mentioned taking Bill Cosby to trial. Ignoring the fact that those are hardly the average campus sexual assault case, I mostly smiled and nodded at these men. Knowing I likely wouldn’t sway them, I pushed back only a little, stating that my questions were driven by the statistics of rapists rarely seeing jail time.
I also pointed out to the third man the challenge of obtaining evidence. Even if survivors do get a rape kit, there is a nationwide problem of backlogged rape kits. Last April, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale published a report on the state’s untested sexual assault kits and backlogged evidence. Though the number is better than previous years, there are still 1,214 sexual assault kits awaiting testing for 12 months or more; of this number, 701 are from the Philadelphia Police Department. DePasquale also said he remains doubtful these kits will be processed in a timely manner due to lack of state funding.
In addition, Pennsylvania has 1,117 law enforcement agencies, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2008 Consensus of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies. Of this number, 899 police departments reported their backlogged evidence. This is once more an improvement from the past, but that still leaves over 200 police departments that did not report.
As for the man’s oh-so-helpful reply? “Well… they should be tested.”
These men scrambled to praise themselves and personally let me know how good they are after I, a single student journalist, asked a somewhat challenging question—and that was extremely telling.
I want to believe that Shapiro and the other speakers had genuinely good intentions. But good intentions will not automatically lead to actual reform.
And after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ recent announcement that she plans to rescind Title IX guidelines put in place by the Obama administration, survivors of sexual assault on college campuses will likely soon feel more vulnerable than ever. They will need all the support they can get.
But following my experience at the press conference, I find myself skeptical that the attorney general’s initiative will have a significant impact on campus sexual assault. While at least one speaker highlighted the importance of listening to survivors at these roundtable discussions, I am not quite sure what they truly expect to accomplish if their immediate reaction is always going to be to defend themselves and pat themselves on the back.
Casey Tobias is a fourth-year student majoring in women’s and gender studies and communication studies with a minor in journalism. They can be reached at CT822683@wcupa.edu. Their Twitter is @Casey_Tobias.