Campus panel deals with sexual assault, harassment

Sexual harassment and assault can be very traumatic experiences, but thankfully, there are many options for Mercyhurst College students dealing with these situations. One of those options for coping is Mercyhurst’s Sexual Harassment Grievance Panel.

The Sexual Harassment Grievance Panel sits for cases ranging from name-calling and harassment to indecent assault and rape.

The panel consists of two students appointed by Mercyhurst Student Government, two faculty members appointed by the Faculty Senate and two administrators. Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Tina Fryling is the college’s sexual harassment and affirmative action officer and also serves as chair on the Sexual Harassment Grievance Panel.

Fryling said the panel is very similar to the college’s judicial board. Many cases dealt with by the panel are “he said/she said” incidents, and the panel members try to be very sensitive to these situations and carefully consider the testimony of all parties involved.

Fryling can also direct victims toward support services and help make life easier for students after going through such a difficult experience.

“There might be certain options (the victims) didn’t consider,” said Fryling. “As sexual assault officer, I try to make sure that the victim isn’t in the same classes as the accused or living across the hall from him. It’s hard if they’re in the same major, but we do whatever we can to make it so they’re not in class together at 8 a.m. every day or a situation like that.”

Sanctions for sexual harassment and assault range anywhere from a fine and community service to expulsion. The panel has not had any incidents this year, but according to Fryling, the panel normally reviews a maximum of one to two incidents per term.

However, this type of case is often under-reported, and keeping this type of case a secret can be very emotionally damaging to victims.

“So often a victim won’t bring it up for several months until it’s become a major problem in their lives. If something happens to you, tell someone you trust so that you’re not going through it by yourself,” Associate Vice President for Student Life Laura Zirkle said.

Fryling strongly encourages victims to go to Mercyhurst’s free Counseling Center and to talk to her as soon as possible.

“If it feels like you were the victim of sexual harassment, come talk to me. Don’t let someone tell you, ‘No, no, it’s fine,’ or ‘I think you’re overreacting.’ I’ll never think you’re overreacting,” Fryling said.

Zirkle said students should talk to a resident assistant, the Counseling Center or Police and Safety immediately after a sexual assault, even if the victims or their friends have been drinking underage.

“The truth is, in almost every case, alcohol is involved. In that situation, we’re not worried about the drinking at all,” Zirkle said.

Both Zirkle and Fryling emphasized that victims have full control over the situation and want them to know that coming forward will not create a snowball effect.

“It used to be the feeling was, you automatically go to the police and the hospital,” said Zirkle. “Now we strongly encourage this, but we bring in a counselor to explain those options before we do anything.”

Mercyhurst Police and Safety is able to connect students with the college’s emergency counselor 24/7 and will contact the Erie Police Department immediately if a student reports a rape or assault.

Mercyhurst College Chief of Police Robert Kuhn said misdemeanors such as nasty texts from an ex-boyfriend or inappropriate touching are handled by officers within Police and Safety.

Kuhn said that even if victims don’t want to press charges, they should come forward in order to protect other students.

“If they are a victim of this crime, there’s a good chance that the guy that did it is going to do it again to somebody else,” Kuhn said.

If you have been the victim of sexual harassment of any kind, contact your resident assistant, the Counseling Center at extension 3650, or Police and Safety at extension 2304. All calls are strictly confidential.