For Sexual Assault Reports on Campus, Zero Doesn’t Mean Zero

It is estimated that one in five undergraduate college women will be sexually assaulted during their four years in school. While this statistic has been challenged many times, several studies have corroborated this number. Regardless of the true statistic, one sexual assault is one too many.


The Jeanne Clery Act, enacted in 1990, requires all colleges and universities that receive federal funding to share information about crime on campus and their efforts to improve campus safety. Universities are required to make the information publicly accessible through their annual security report, published every October 1st.


A just-published Washington Post review of security reports from the 2014 school year found that 1,300 of 2,200 colleges that they reviewed had zero reports of rape on campus. While this may sound like good news, we know that sexual assaults are widely unreported. In the earlier mentioned pilot study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, they found that of the 4.2% of students who reported they were raped within the last year, only 12.5% reported the assault to their college or law enforcement. Suppose that the ones reporting no rapes are the smallest colleges. If the odds of rape are evenly distributed, then the chance that a college with 1,000 students would have no rapes is mathematically….well, too small to measure. (It’s actually 1.36 x 10-9). So I think we can safely assume that zero rapes isn’t a sign of campus safety, but instead a sign that sexual assaults are not being reported to university officials. Or that, in violation of the law, universities are not reporting known rapes.


Of the schools that the Washington Post examined, there were some with higher counts of incidents. There were 43 reported rapes at Brown University and at the University of Connecticut. There were 26 rapes reported at Stanford University, where student (we can’t technically call him rapist) Brock Turner sexually assaulted another student and received a controversially lenient sentence of 6 months, which has been widely covered by the media for weeks. Following the Washington Post’s report, headlines called out these schools for having high incidences of sexual assault. However, the truth is more likely that they are doing a good job of encouraging victims to report an incident.


Universities need to take measures to ensure that the campus culture encourages victims to file reports. In the American Association of Universities 2014 study, only 49% of students believed that if they reported a sexual assault it would be “very likely” for a fair investigation to occur. Also, only 30% reported that they knew how or where to get help following an assault. Of the students who were physically penetrated during a sexual assault, a full one-third said they did not report the attack because they were “embarrassed, ashamed, or that it would be too emotionally difficult”.


To address these real concerns, universities need to have policies in place that protect victims’ identities and make them feel comfortable to report sexual violence. They also need to have a clear process in which students know where to go and how to report an incident if it occurs. Education campaigns about consent and respect are needed, as shown by the Brock Turner case where the perpetrator’s dad even dismissed his son’s actions. Clearly these lessons aren’t being taught at home for some students.


California has taken an important step forward with its “Yes means yes” law, which requires affirmative consent before sex. It’s no longer enough for perpetrators of sexual violence to claim that the victim didn’t resist or didn’t say “no.” Only “yes” means “yes” in California higher education, at least if they take state money. Critics seem to think that asking for yes is asking too much, but college students don’t seem to mind.


This same level of affirmative disclosure is a good model for universities, too. Two years ago, the Department of Education took the unprecedented move of releasing a list of 55 Universities that under active investigation for violations of Title IX sexual violence law. Both fortunately and unfortunately, the number of active investigations has ballooned since then, and The Chronicle of Higher Education now has a search engine for the nearly 250 open cases of university violations.


So let’s not consider any of the universities with zero-incident reports free of sexual assault. Instead, let’s work to improve campus safety and make victim reports commonplace, so perpetrators have to fear real consequences.

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