Wolf launches 'It's on Us PA' to fight sexual violence

Jessica Schladebeck

Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday launched the first statewide campaign to address the issue of sexual assault in schools and college campuses by signing onto a White House initiative intended to prevent the violence.

The national "It's on Us" campaign, launched by President Barack Obama in 2014, calls on colleges, universities, school districts and communities to take a pledge to prevent sexual assault by way of collaboration and education. The governor and first lady last week announced the "It's on Us PA" campaign at Elizabethtown College and asked schools and organization across the commonwealth to take their own pledge and form partnerships to assist in preventing, addressing and responding to sexual violence.

More than 40 school superintendents and college and university presidents — York College President Pamela Gunter-Smith among them — were at Elizabethtown to commit to the prevention initiative.

Pamela Gunter-Smith

"York College has a longstanding commitment to educating our campus about sexual assault and seeking ways to eradicate it from our community," Gunter-Smith said. "Our participation in 'It's On Us PA' will allow us to join with other institutions to enhance our collective and individual efforts to protect college students in Pennsylvania and across the nation."

Those present at Elizabethtown came together for a round-table discussion and shared some of their own initiatives and programs for battling sexual assault on their campuses and communities.

Some of York College's programs include a "Consent and Respect" course, which all incoming students this year were required to complete, and The Sexual Assault Response Program committee, which meets regularly to address issues and topics related to sex education and sexual assault prevention.

The pledge:  The "It's on Us PA" pledge, which has three major goals, takes a preventative focus rather than one of avoidance, said Kristen Houser, spokeswoman for Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. The organization partners with 50 different crisis centers across the state, and one of them operates of out of York County.

"Avoidance includes things like telling women not to walk alone, telling people to watch their drinks, telling them to lock their car doors," Houser said. "Prevention is about changing societal norms.

"We want the norm to be promoting respect and promoting healthy relationships — it's on all of us to promote those messages."

The goals of the "It's on Us PA" campaign include improving sexual violence prevention, awareness, reporting and response systems, eliminating barriers that keep victims from reporting and to demonstrate proactive leadership to change campus culture.

Those signing onto the initiative are pledging to take responsibility and promising to recognize that non-consensual sex is sexual assault, to identify situations in which sexual assault may occur, and to intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given.​

Houser said a type of "party culture" exists in colleges today that makes it imperative this type of awareness begins to develop.

Kristen Houser, Chief Public Affairs Officer at PCAR

"There are all types of situations where you can intervene, whether you see someone creeping in on some else’s boundaries or someone who is very inebriated being dragged out of the party," she said. "Intervening in these situations is a way people can really change this dynamic," which would go toward another goal of the initiative: making sexual violence unacceptable in any form and creating a supportive environment for survivors.

"We know (survivors) don’t feel supported, that they don’t come forward," she said. "This only contributes to the cycle and the problem as a whole."

Local:  "Pennsylvania is home to some of the best schools in the country, and sexual assault should not be part of any student’s school or college experience. Ensuring our students’  safety and well-being is paramount not only to their success, but the success of Pennsylvania as a whole,” Wolf said on Friday. "I'm determined to make Pennsylvania a shining example."

Houser applauded the governor's joining the national campaign.

"Any time it becomes more localized, it becomes something you can better identify with," she said. "Having leadership like that, leading by example, showing collaboration and reminding people that there are these crisis centers throughout the state is a fantastic first step in normalizing this as a part of the Commonwealth’s values."

She also said its a great opportunity for organizations to team up with some of their local crisis centers, noting some of them have already been engaged in these initiatives for 40-some years.

In York, The YWCA of York's Victim Assistance Center provides crisis intervention, information, counseling and support to victims of sexual violence or other violent crimes.

The victim assistance center has a 24-hour hotline that can be reached at  (717) 854-3131 or 1-800-422-3204. More information and a list of resources is also available on the YWCA's website.

The York County Children's Advocacy Center and the York County Office of Children Youth & Families also provide assistance to abused children.

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.