University Sexual Assault Stats Don't Add Up

The Center for Public Integrity says there is every reason to believe that sexual assaults on campus are dramatically underreported, and it assembled a "reporter's toolkit" to help journalists "get local" on this story.

The Center found:

"Student victims face a depressing litany of barriers that often either assure their silence or leave them feeling victimized a second time, according to a nine-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity. Many victims don't report at all, because they blame themselves, or don't identify what happened as sexual assault; one national study found that more than 95 percent of students who are sexually victimized do not report to police or campus officials. Local criminal justice authorities regularly shy away from such cases, because they are "he said, she said" disputes sometimes clouded by drugs or alcohol. That frequently leaves students to deal with campus judiciary processes so shrouded in secrecy that they can remain mysterious even to their participants."

Among the investigation's findings:

"Limitations and loopholes in the federal mandatory campus crime reporting law, known as the Clery Act, are causing systematic problems in documenting the numbers of campus-related sexual assaults, the Center found. The most troubling loopholes involve broadly applied reporting exemptions for counselors supposedly covered by confidentiality protections. Confusion over definitions of sexual offenses, as well as the law's comprehensive reporting provisions, have created additional problems. Available data suggests that, on many campuses, far more sexual offenses are occurring than are reflected in official Clery numbers."

The investigation also found that students often face barriers, including school officials who refuse to believe them, when they try to file complaints.

College judicial systems, according to the Center, are often secretive and even illegal

"The Center has interviewed 48 experts familiar with the disciplinary process -- student affairs administrators, conduct hearing officers, assault services directors, victim advocates -- as well as 33 female students who have reported being raped by other students. The inquiry has included a review of records in select cases, and examinations of 10 years worth of complaints filed against institutions with the U.S. Education Department under Title IX and the Clery Act -- two laws requiring schools to respond to assault claims and to offer key rights to alleged victims. The Center has also surveyed 152 crisis-services programs and clinics on or near college campuses nationwide over the past year.

"Just over half the students interviewed by the Center have reported they unsuccessfully sought criminal charges and instead had to seek justice in closed, school-run administrative proceedings that led either to academic penalties or no punishment at all for their alleged assailants, leaving them feeling betrayed by a process they say has little transparency or accountability."

Reporting this story

Here are the Center for Public Integrity's suggestions on how to report this story in your area:

  • "Look for the school's annual campus security report on the university website or request a print copy from the university.

  • "The U.S. Department of Education also maintains a database of Clery Act statistics provided by schools:
  • "Compare sexual assault numbers provided to the U.S. Department of Education against the numbers published in the school's annual security report. Sometimes the numbers are different and those differences are red flags for Clery Act violations.
  • "Collect numbers for sexual assaults from on-campus and off-campus rape crisis centers and/or student counseling centers for the last three years. Compare those numbers to Clery Act statistics submitted to the Education Department, as well as those published in the annual campus security report.

  • "Find out how Clery Act crime data is collected around campus. Compare the school's collection process against what it is required [to collect] under the Clery Act.

  • "File a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Department of Education to see if the school has ever been the subject of a Clery Act complaint. If there is a complaint, who originated the complaint and why? What was the Department's response to the Clery Act complaint? Findings? Conclusions?"

How to find Title IX complaints against a school:

  • "Under Title IX, sex-based discrimination can include sexual harassment, rape, and sexual assault. The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) monitors Title IX compliance:

  • "For a fee, you could search court records online via PACER, the federal court system's website:

  • "You might also try searching for case information through your state court system's website. This is usually free. Key search terms: 'Title IX,' 'sexual assault,' 'sexual harassment,' 'rape,' and the name of your school.

  • "File a FOIA request with OCR asking for any and all Title IX complaints involving schools in your state over a certain period of time.

  • "One way to approach victims who have filed a Title IX complaint with OCR or a Title IX lawsuit is to contact the attorneys who have represented them in their cases. Victim advocates are also a good source to identify students who have filed Title IX complaints with OCR."

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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