Major colleges and universities are undercounting the number of sexual crimes that occur on their campuses in an attempt to downplay the issue, according to new research published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law.
“When it comes to sexual assault and rape, the norm for universities and colleges is to downplay the situation and the numbers,” lead researcher Corey Rayburn Yung, a law professor at the University of Kansas, said in a statement. “The result is students at many universities continue to be attacked and victimized, and punishment isn’t meted out to the rapists and sexual assaulters.”
Under the federal Clery Act, schools are required to report the number of crimes that occur on their campuses, including instances of rape. But over the past several years, an increasing number of universities have been accused of trying to sweep rape under the rug by reporting artificially low numbers. The University of Southern California, for instance, has allegedly labeled sexual assaults as “personal injuries” to keep its official rape numbers down.
In order to collect the data for his new study, Yung analyzed the reports of on-campus sexual assaults at 31 schools that were audited by the U.S. Department of Education for potential Clery Act violations. In other words, the universities that Yung examined had been accused of underreporting, so the government spent a period of time keeping a closer eye on them.
Yung found that, during the government audits, the number of sexual assaults reported by those schools increased by about 44 percent. But after the audits were over, the number of reports dropped back down to their previous levels. The study also found that the vast majority of participating schools frequently reported zero cases of annual off-campus sexual assaults, even though the Clery Act requires officials to make a “good faith” effort to work with local police to get that data.
That data led Yung to conclude that schools only try to get a more accurate picture of sexual violence among their student bodies when they’re being audited by the federal government. He also believes the current punishments in place for schools that violate Clery’s reporting requirements — up to a $35,000 fine per each case that wasn’t logged — aren’t stringent enough to convince university officials to actually change their behavior.
“Colleges and universities still aren’t taking the safety of their students from sexual assault seriously,” Yung said. “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.”
Student activists have recently been attempting to force their school administrators’ hands in this area by highlighting their failures to adequately respond to instances of sexual violence. They hope to reframe the issue so that colleges will feel pressured to be proactive on issues of rape prevention. Then, inaction on the sexual assault crisis — rather than transparency about the number of cases that are occurring — will constitute the PR risk.
Some advocates have also suggested allowing students to self-report their own assaults in campus climate surveys administered to the entire student body. That would allow survivors to report incidences of violence without being required to go to the police, or go through the university’s official adjudication process. It would also make the information more transparent to the general public.
The Campus Accountability and Safety Act, a bill introduced in Congress last year that was spearheaded by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), would take some steps toward that goal. Under that legislation, student surveys would be mandatory and that information would be stored in publicly available databases. The bill also seeks to raise the maximum fines under the Clery Act to $150,000 per each violation.
According to Gillibrand, the legislation intends to “flip the incentives that currently reward (colleges for) keeping sexual assault in the shadows” and “not allow these crimes to be swept under the rug any longer.”