A national issue burst onto a Pennsylvania campus Wednesday when more than 200 Dickinson College students staged a '60s-style sit-in to protest the school's handling of sexual assault cases.

Filing into the school's administration building, the students demanded that the Carlisle college make its policies on sexual violence more transparent. They called for the school to issue red alerts when an assault occurs and take a stronger stance against sexual offenses, with mandatory and irreversible expulsion for offenders.

"We all know somebody who has been sexually assaulted on campus. It's too much of a prevalent issue on our campus and it affects our lives directly," said senior Tiffany Hwang, 22, of Harrisburg.

On most campuses, sexual assault cases are alleged date rapes or instances in which the victim knows the attacker, not random assaults by strangers.

Schools for years have faced scrutiny for their handling of assaults. A national study a year ago blasted campuses for failing to punish offenders or help victims feel comfortable reporting the crime.

Dickinson, a campus of nearly 2,400 students, reported five forcible sex offenses on campus in 2009, according to federal data. No 2010 data were available.

Hwang said students had complained to the college about problems since 2009 and had not received a satisfactory response.

Dickinson officials said they take the students' concerns seriously and have been addressing them, including hiring a sexual violence prevention coordinator and implementing a required orientation program on sexual misconduct for new students. The university recently concluded an 18-month study to improve handling of sexual misconduct cases, and is using a $300,000 federal grant to make improvements.

But officials cautioned that the issue is a thorny one, with more gray areas when it comes to conduct and to laws that require the confidentiality of those involved be protected.

"It's an extremely difficult situation, and it can frustrate people who want to know everything and want to know it now," Dickinson president William Durden said in an interview. "We've been doing quite a bit to work on these issues. In this case, everything they demand is already in process."

Because the cases are date rape or acquaintance rape, they can be difficult to investigate and deal with, Durden said.

"It's all behind closed doors. It's extremely complex. Some folks would like to make it more simple than it is," he said.

In some cases, assaults are not reported until weeks after they occur, he said. Clear-cut cases in which a student is deemed a threat result in expulsion, he said.

A study by the Center for Public Integrity and funded by the federal Department of Justice said offenders nationally too often face little or no punishment. The probe released last winter also found colleges have failed to report incidents vigilantly and create a supportive environment for victims.

One in five female college students will become the victim of a rape or an attempted rape during her college years, the organization found.

"Student victims face a depressing litany of barriers that often either assure their silence or leave them feeling victimized a second time," the center said.

S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy at the nonprofit Security on Campus Inc. in King of Prussia, said colleges and universities have gotten better at addressing the problem, but still have a long way to go.

"There needs to be better transparency - while insuring victim confidentiality is protected - in how colleges and universities deal with sexual violence," Carter said. "Right now, it's like a big black hole. There's no accountability. Zero."

He said he was encouraged to see Dickinson students act.

"It's kind of exciting to see students get so actively engaged on this issue, and to have a very-well-put-together list of demands," he said.

Georgia Catania, 22, a senior from Wallingford, said that a friend of hers had been raped and that the campus did not handle the case well. She went home from a party with a male student and was attacked, Catania said.

"He took advantage of her because she had too much to drink," she said.

Students planned to continue their sit-in into the weekend until their demands are met, said Demery Hanna, 22, a senior from Malvern. The students are not obstructing entrances and will be permitted to stay if they choose, college officials said.

Hanna said she knew two students who had been assaulted. The recent case involved two students who knew each other. She went home with him, and "things got out of hand," Hanna said.

Students also called on the college to punish students for other offenses that they said create a hostile environment, such as "cat-calling, lewd comments, and homophobic or misogynistic slurs."

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.