WOMEN'S HEALTH
February 19, 2015

Misleading Numbers on Sexual Assault

Guess what happens to the number of rapes and sexual assaults reported on campuses when legal scrutiny is lifted?

Colleges and universities consistently underreport sexual assaults. That's the conclusion of a decade-long study. Given the headlines over the past two years, the findings may not be a surprise, but the long-term nature of the study, as well as its size, paint a portrait of sexual assault as a widespread problem that universities and colleges are consistently trying to sweep under the rug.

“When it comes to sexual assault and rape, the norm for universities and colleges is to downplay the situation and the numbers,” said study author Corey Rayburn Yung, a professor at the Kansas University School of Law.

“The result is students at many universities continue to be attacked and victimized, and punishment isn't meted out to the rapists and sexual assaulters.”

The results help confirm the opinions of many sexual assault victims' organizations who believe that many universities and colleges ignore or downplay problems relating to sexual assaults on campus.

The number of sexual assaults reported rose by 44% during an audit period for compliance with federal crime reporting requirements of 31 large universities by the Department of Education between 2001 and 2012. But the sexual assault statistics fell back to pre-audit levels after the audit was over.

This pattern — rising during audit, declining after the audit ends — was not seen for any other crime. This suggests that these schools only presented a true picture of sexual assaults while they were under federal scrutiny. The rest of the time, many sexual assaults went unreported.

Most of the audits were triggered by local complaints about the handling of sexual assaults or other violent crimes on campus.

Since federal reporting requirements only cover crimes committed on campus and at select off-campus locations, the study wasn't able to track all off-campus sexual assaults or those that weren't reported by victims, so the true number of students victimized by sexual assaults is probably much higher than the study results indicate.

The Clery Act was signed into law in 1990 in response to the 1986 on-campus rape and murder of Jeanne Clery, a 19-year old Lehigh University freshman, as well as other unreported crimes on college campuses across the nation. It requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on-campus and at certain locations near the campus.

The study included all large schools with on-campus housing. More than 10,000 students were audited from 2001 to 2012. The report didn't provide individual statistics for each school, and Yung said that some of the 31 schools didn't show a spike in reported sexual assaults during audits. But the average rise for all 31 schools was 44% during the audits.

Many universities continue to view rape and sexual assault as a public relations issue rather than a safety issue.

The results help confirm the opinions of many sexual assault victims' organizations who believe that many universities and colleges ignore or downplay problems relating to sexual assaults on campus.

“Colleges and universities still aren't taking the safety of their students from sexual assault seriously,” says Yung. “The study shows that many universities continue to view rape and sexual assault as a public relations issue rather than a safety issue. They don't want to be seen as a school with really high sexual assault numbers, and they don't want to go out of their way to report that information to students or the media.”

Under the Clery Act, colleges and universities can face fines of up to $35,000 per violation of crime reporting requirements. A bill introduced last year in Congress, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, would raise maximum fines to $150,000 per violation and create a public database of campus sexual assaults from information provided by student surveys. Yung calls this a step in the right direction and believes that probation for violating schools and more frequent audits are also needed.

The study appears in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.
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