Colleges ‘in denial’ about campus sexual assault problem, advocates say
February 25, 2010
One reason the frequency of sexual assault on campuses continues to be high is that schools are in denial about the scope of the problem, say advocates and victims. In addition, universities have fragmented reporting channels, and women report assaults in various ways – they may call the police, tell a friend or faculty member, go to the hospital or seek counseling at the sexual assault center.
By Carol Smith and Lee van der Voo
One reason the frequency of sexual assault on campuses continues to be high is that schools are in denial about the scope of the problem, say advocates and victims.
“Universities tend to have fragmented reporting channels rather than a centralized system where a student knows to come to,” said Sarah Dunne, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
Women report incidents of assault in various ways. They may call the police, tell a friend or a faculty member, go to the sexual assault counseling center, or tell their doctor.
A federal law known as the Clery Act, requires schools to report sexual assault statistics. But a data analysis by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity shows that there is a wide discrepancy between the official numbers universities report and the numbers seen by campus and community sexual assault counseling centers or other places victims seek help. That’s partly because a woman seeking aid through a campus counseling center may not want to report the incident.
“We help them make a decision about what they want to do,” said Melissa Tumas, director of the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Information Center at the University of Washington, who sees about 160 cases a year, including stalking and domestic violence cases. About 40 percent of her case load involves sexual assaults. But unless the victim wants to press forward with either a police report or a university hearing, she will not disclose the incident.
“I’m a confidential resource for them,” she said.
Certain professionals, such as trained counselors, are not required to report the assaults, if the student does not want to have it reported. Even faculty members, who are required to report incidents as part of Title IX rules may feel conflicted about this role.
Marilyn Derby, director of Residence Life at Willamette University in Oregon, said she feels obligated to let students know that telling her about an assault could launch a formal investigation.
When a student starts a conversation about sexual assault, Derby said, “I usually stop them pretty quick into the conversation and tell that that Title IX requires us to investigate reports.”
The University of Washington says it does require faculty to report incidents, if a student comes forward. But won't proceed with an investigation or hearing into the matter without the victim's permission.
"We do consider sexual assault to be an extreme form of sexual harassment and would follow the mandated procedures for reporting the incident, if a student came forward. We do not proceed with judicial or investigatory processes if the student victim is not willing. If there is a report and the student comes forward we respond accordingly and offer support services as well as follow through with judicial proceedings, if the student is willing," said Shannon Bailie, director of Health and Wellness for the Division of Student Life.
Derby of Willamette said she doesn’t want students launching a campus investigation unless they’re ready to. So she discourages them from talking about specifics unless an investigation is what they want. Derby said she sometimes feels conflicted about her inability to simply provide support.
“We’ll do what we are required to do according to the law but that doesn’t mean we always have clarity in our own feelings,” she said. “We’ve made the decision to leave the ability to report with the survivor and that’s where we sit.”
Derby said she sees no way to hold perpetrators accountable without a formal report from a victim, however, and leaving reporting to a victim can be challenging because many faculty would like to see more penalties for sexual assault.
Another reason universities don’t have a good handle on how frequently sexual assaults take place is that there is often little or no cross checking between the police, and counseling centers.
Because of that, officials may not realize when they have serial attacks. When there’s no centralized reporting, schools aren’t able to track or see patterns that would lead them to predators, said the ACLU’s Dunne.
“They can’t track whether someone who assaults then moves across campus and assaults again.” This fragmented approach to reporting leads to widely varying estimates of the frequency of rape on campus.
Attorney Rebecca Roe said when she tried a case involving the UW a few years ago, the school had reported 4 assaults to the federal government, but the head of the student counseling service at the time had handled 25 reports during that same time frame.
“I’m going, how in the world can that be true?” said Roe, who has tried a number of cases involving students at universities in Washington state.
In 2008, the UW, which enrolls about 40,000 students on its main campus, received two reports of on-campus sexual assaults and one off-campus, vice president for student life Eric Godfrey said. Seattle Police reported seven in the area around the UW campus, he said.
In 2008, Gonzaga, which enrolls about 6,300 students, reported one incident defined as rape, and two incidents defined as "other offenses," such as sexual assault, according to Jeff Hart, assistant dean of student life. In 2006, the school reported one rape and one other offense.
"The number of reports received by the SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) group will typically be greater than these statistics because SART receives reports on a broader range of alleged offense and not all reported incident fit the Clery criteria," Hart said in an emailed response to InvestigateWest.
Only one or two incidents a year proceed to a school disciplinary hearing, he said. Schools may be adhering to the letter of the law by reporting only those sexual assault allegations that surface through police, or official student conduct review panels. But by not keeping some count of confidential reports, the effect is to minimize the true incidence on campus, advocates said.
There is a built-in disincentive for schools to acknowledge the frequency of campus rape. Reporting of rape statistics is contrary to the need to present the campus as a safe, attractive place for potential students, said Adam Shipman, director of advocacy and education for the Sexual Assault and Family Trauma Response Center in Spokane, which does outreach and training at several area colleges, including Eastern Washington University, Washington State University, and Gonzaga University.
That puts universities in a bind – they want to downplay statistics to continue to attract students, but they can’t address the scope of the problem without knowing how big it truly is.
“I can tell you, it’s significantly more than get reported,” said Shipman.
InvestigateWest is a non-profit investigative news organization covering the environment, health and social justice. Find out more at www.invw.org.
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