Bringing Sexual Assault on Campus Into the Light

Efforts to increase transparency—and safety—at colleges and universities.
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University of Michigan. (Photo: SNEHIT/Shutterstock)

University of Michigan. (Photo: SNEHIT/Shutterstock)

It’s hard to know how many assaults and rapes occur on college campuses each year. They’re unfortunately, but understandably, under-reported crimes. College is a time when students are trying out new experiences, testing their own boundaries, and drinking more than they ever have before. Add to this the fact that 80 to 90 percent of all rapes on campus are perpetrated by the victims’ acquaintances, friends, or partners, and this is a combination of factors that’s ripe for shame, confusion, and fear. Assault victims often don’t even know that what’s happened to them can rightly be called rape, let alone what to do about it.

One woman in five is assaulted at some point during her college career, and only 13 percent of victims will report the crime to local law enforcement or campus police. Making it easier for students to get help, and cracking down on schools that don’t follow through on punishments and prevention of future crimes, are the main goals of a White House task force against sexual assault on college campuses. The task force released a report last week on their findings about the frequency of assaults on campus, and recommended a new mandate for schools to conduct their own internal reviews. The administration also launched a new website, NotAlone.gov, to provide information and answers to students and schools.

Acting Assistant General Jocelyn Samuels recently categorized sexual assault on campus as a “civil rights issue.” In a speech at the University of Delaware last month, she said, “Sexual assault denies students their right to live and learn in a safe educational environment—and it is a form of sex discrimination that is disproportionately perpetrated against women.” This language emphasizes the administration’s plan to fight uncooperative colleges and universities using Title IX guidelines, as well as the Clery Act, which since 1990 has required schools to keep and report information about crimes on campus.

"Sexual assault denies students their right to live and learn in a safe educational environment—and it is a form of sex discrimination that is disproportionately perpetrated against women."

The consequences for non-compliant colleges are already becoming clear. Last Thursday, just days after the White House announcement, the Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities that are currently under investigation for their handling and reporting of student sexual assaults, and for potentially violating Title IX rules. Big public universities like the University of California and Ohio State are on the list, as are smaller private colleges like Harvard and Princeton. Schools are generally on the list because administrators (allegedly) failed to follow up on student complaints of violence or harassment, or didn’t adequately punish perpetrators after they’d been found guilty of assault.

The publication of this list is a big deal. Colleges and universities have every motivation not to go public with the problems they face, as they all compete for applicants, federal funding, and private donors. But perhaps the fact that the list is so long will help all schools acknowledge that this is a widespread problem—a problem that’s best addressed out in the open, and not behind litigious doors.

Continuing academic and scientific research on these types of issues is another important aspect of the White House task force. The “Not Alone” report announced that the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing would research intimate partner violence, including LGBTQ relationships; the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work would work on how best to train campus law enforcement on responding to reports of assault; and the University of New Hampshire Prevention Innovations Center would focus on prevention, with a training program for incoming students.

Previous social science research about sexual assault on college campuses has already been useful in identifying the gaps in schools’ strategies. For instance, a survey by the Crime Victims’ Institute last year of Texas universities found that many schools provided support for victims after the fact, but that it was less common for schools to put a lot of resources into preventing crimes from happening in the first place. Educational programs that teach bystanders how to intervene if they think someone is being assaulted or harassed have been very successful in preventing violence, but they don’t always get incorporated into schools’ thinking about these issues. When students are victimized, it makes sense that they will tell their friends before going to administrators. If those friends know how to respond to the situations with empathy and positivity, they can actually decrease the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The same study also declared, “the availability of programs targeting men for prevention of victimization and enhancement of empathy and intervention are similarly bleak.” Only 11 Texas schools out of 74 offered programs tailored to men. According to another Crime Victims’ Institute study released this year, approximately nine to 14 percent of men experience sexual assault during their time at college. Male victims need to be cared for just as much as females do, obviously; and men who aren’t victims need to learn how they can contribute to a safe and supportive atmosphere for all of their classmates.

Another, much wider, survey by the National Institute of Justice in 2005 uncovered more flaws in schools’ reporting systems. The study examined 2,500 colleges and universities across the country and found that the schools were complying with after-the-fact reporting rules “unevenly.” Only a half of the schools they looked at allowed for anonymous reporting of crimes, and fewer than half offered students help in filing criminal charges—surely an intimidating process to undertake alone.

One small comfort for college kids today is that, if they’re unsatisfied with their schools’ response to a crime, they’re just a Google search away from getting help in filing a report. Networks that span campuses and countries have sprung up to provide support and inform students about their rights—sites like End Rape on Campus (EROC) and Know Your IX (KYIX), and others. (In fact, the White House’s new NotAlone.gov mimics these smaller, non-profit organizations that have been providing the same support and services for years—not that the federal attention and funding isn’t welcome.)

But still, getting help for victims after the fact isn’t enough. Crime-reporting and punishment have to go hand in hand with thorough prevention efforts and training. Schools shouldn’t be able to pick and choose which types of anti-violence programs they will devote time and money to. The White House’s task force and the Department of Education’s openness about its investigations are important steps toward transparency. The louder this conversation, the better.

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