No Shit: Colleges Are Underreporting Sexual Assaults

UVA Rotunda (Wikipedia)

UVA Rotunda (Wikipedia)

This should come as a surprise to absolutely no one: A recent study published in “Psychology, Public Policy and Law” found that colleges underreport sexual assaults on their campuses.

Conducted by the American Psychological Association, University of Kansas researcher Corey Rayburn Yung analyzed data pertaining to on-campus sexual assault reports from 31 colleges and universities. (This data came via the Clery Act, a federal law that mandates how colleges self-report crimes.) He specifically looked at “large schools with on-campus housing and 10K students” that were audited between 2001-2012 by the U.S. Department of Education for meeting federal reporting standards.

Here’s what Yung found:

During the audits, the reported numbers of sexual assaults increased by approximately 44 percent on average from previously reported levels. After the audits ended, the reported number of sexual assaults in following years dropped to pre-audit levels, evidence that some schools provided a more accurate picture of sexual assaults on campus only when they were under federal scrutiny, the study concluded.

(The study notes that individual stats for each school weren’t provided, and some didn’t show a spike in reporting during this period.)

It makes sense that a school would be more vigilant in reporting assaults during a government-mandated audit. But holy shit that’s a huge discrepancy. (To his credit, Yung did say that the study’s initial hypothesis was that colleges were underreporting these numbers, so he wasn’t going into this super-naive.)

But here’s another troubling thing, taken from the study’s abstract:

The data indicate[s] that the audits have no long-term effect on the reported levels of sexual assault, as those crime rates return to previous levels after the audit is completed.

So these schools are only on top of things when the Feds are breathing down their neck. Basically you’re shit out of luck if you’re assaulted on-campus during a non-audit timeframe, college women.

It’s probable that issues influencing the underreporting are the schools wanting to cover up the assaults (obviously), and/or schools might attempt the resolve the cases in a timely manner during the audit.

This sheds light on how higher education institutions see sexual assault: more of a potential blight on their reputations than actual concern for victims. Said 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.

What happens to schools that don’t comply with the sexual assault reporting requirements? They’re fined $35K, which pretty much amounts to a student’s (or half a student’s) yearly tuition.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve long suspected this to be the case. A similar phenomenon occurs with reporting unemployment numbers: A person who doesn’t work is counted as “unemployed” only if they’ve been actively looking for work within that past four weeks. If they haven’t done so, they’re not counted at all. Whenever a new jobs report comes out claiming that the unemployment number has dropped, a lot of people who haven’t been looking get hopeful and begin to look for work again, and then the real unemployment number grows. (And then everyone wonders why it’s bigger than before.)

To solve this problem, Yung calls for greater resources allocated to the issue, more frequent audits and greater fines for delinquent schools. I’d say that that’s a good step in the right direction.

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