Penn State president endorses set of recommended changes to policies against sexual misconduct

Penn State's president on Tuesday threw his support behind a set of policy changes that will remake how the university addresses sexual misconduct matters on campus.

President Eric Barron announced that the school will hire a new coordinator and set up an office to address sexual misconduct and related issues. The official will be tasked with implementing a new approach to investigating such cases, conducting an annual survey and setting up an expert advisory committee.

Barron said the goal is a campus environment "where violence and harassment of any kind is not tolerated. ... Sexual assault and sexual harassment are vastly underreported and have no place in our community."

The recommendations were announced in January by a task force Barron established last summer.

The task force also recommended making victim support services more available at campuses outside University Park.

There will be new training for faculty and staff, and freshmen will have to take a course about student safety and well-being.

Penn State intends to implement the changes within a year of hiring the new coordinator.

The Task Force on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment recommended the school no longer handle sexual misconduct through the hearing process used for other types of disciplinary matters. Instead, it called for an investigator who would report his or her findings to a small group of faculty and staff.

Task force members told Barron the hearings can require victims to repeatedly describe to strangers who make up hearing panels the details of encounters that can be highly personal.

"Inappropriate and inflammatory statements about students' prior sexual histories, emotional and psychological difficulties, or reputations may be made in a hearing before they can be stopped," according to the report issued to Barron.

A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, a group that advocates for victims of sexual assault, said the changes are a definite improvement.

"They're not simply looking at: 'Are we strictly abiding by the law and following the letter of the law?' They are invested in addressing the whole issue, preventing it and having a much more holistic approach," said Kristen Houser with the coalition.

University officials say the sexual misconduct initiative has nothing to do with the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal that has roiled the institution for the past four years.

Sexual misconduct on campus is a national issue, and setting up the task force was among Barron's first acts after being named Penn State president last year.

"One of his priorities, of course, is the safety of our students — so getting a handle on what is being done and how we can better deal with these very complex issues (helping survivors, weighing evidence and holding perpetrators accountable) was one of his inaugural initiatives," said university spokeswoman Lisa Powers.

Thirteen Penn State students at University Park and four at other campuses reported sexual misconduct during the first four months of the current school year. The total last year was 24 at University Park and one elsewhere in the university system.