The number of “forcible rapes” reported at colleges and universities increased by nearly 50 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to a new analysis of Department of Education data conducted by NPR. The lowest number of reports in recent years occurred in 2009, when there were 2,370 reported cases of sexual assault on campuses across the country. In 2012, reports rose to 3,621:
CREDIT: Robert Benincasa and Alyson Hurt/NPR
With increased national attention on the college sexual assault crisis recently, those numbers can certainly seem discouraging. But even though it’s somewhat counterintuitive, a spike in rape reports can actually signal some good news.
Campus rapes are notoriously under-reported. Back in 2007, a report from the Department of Justice found that just 12 percent of college sexual assault survivors had ever reported the incidence to authorities. If colleges’ numbers have risen since then, that means an increasing number of students are feeling comfortable enough to come forward and tell someone about the crime.
College administrators, who want to avoid cultivating a bad reputation as an unsafe school, are typically squeamish about the fact reforming their sexual assault policies can actually result in an initial uptick in rape reports. But it’s important to realize that this data can signal that students have the support systems they need.
For instance, American University hired a new sexual assault prevention coordinator, Daniel Rappaport, in 2011. It’s a new position that no one at the school held before that point. In a recent interview with ThinkProgress, Rappaport explained that people often incorrectly assume that if he’s doing his job well, the number of sexual assaults reported on campus should decline. “Now that I’m here to help prevent sexual violence, should our numbers go down? Nope. Our numbers should go up significantly because we have more resources to help people come forward,” Rappaport said.
Publicizing this type of data at every college can help rebrand the issue as a national problem, not something that’s specific to one particular university. Activists hope that will help dissuade university officials from continuing to sweep rape cases under the rug to keep up appearances.
Fortunately, as student activists across the country have been pressuring their administrations to handle this issue more effectively, the federal government has also been working on making information about campus sexual assaults more transparent. The White House just launched a new website, NotAlone.Gov, to publicize information about which schools are struggling to comply with federal laws related to rape. And on Thursday, the Department of Education released the names of the 55 colleges and universities that are currently under investigation for mishandling students’ sexual assault and harassment cases. The new information is coinciding with the same time of year that prospective students are receiving their acceptance letters and deciding which college they want to attend.