Surprise! Research shows numerous universities underreport sexual assault

A new study illustrates what we already know: Federal scrutiny and fines don't overcome colleges' quest for good PR

Published February 3, 2015 3:12PM (EST)

           (Heather Martino via Flickr Creative Commons)
(Heather Martino via Flickr Creative Commons)

Today in unsurprising research findings: a recent study published by the American Psychological Association finds that colleges and universities around the country engage in a pattern of serious underreporting of campus sexual assaults, in violation of federal law and despite sizable fines. The study, which analyzed the number of assaults reported by 31 universities nationwide, found that schools reported incidents of sexual violence at a significantly higher rate during audits by the Department of Education -- but when the audits ended, reporting rates dropped.

"When it comes to sexual assault and rape, the norm for universities and colleges is to downplay the situation and the numbers," researcher and University of Kansas law professor Corey Rayburn Yung said. "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."

According to Yung's findings, the schools he surveyed -- all large schools with more than 10,000 students and on-campus housing, each of which was audited between 2001 and 2012 -- showed an average increase of 44 percent in the number of on-campus sexual assaults reported during DOE audits. While some schools did not show spikes in the number of reported cases, the average drop following federal audits indicates that universities might be more likely to underreport sexual crimes without government scrutiny and, perhaps, a realer threat of punishment.

But, as far as punishment is concerned, Yung concluded that the present repercussions for underreporting sexual assaults don't do enough to deter universities from keeping the honest counts to themselves. Currently, colleges and universities can face fines of up to $35,000 per violation for failure to meet federal crime reporting standards, though campus safety advocates in Congress have proposed measures to increase fines.

The study highlights another issue, which is harder to address in a climate where PR seems to matter more than student safety: off-campus crimes, reported or not, are likely significantly higher than the numbers show. Yung found that the majority of institutions included in the survey reported zero -- yes, zero -- off-campus sexual assaults in a given year, despite federal requirements that they actually do something to investigate whether or not crimes have been reported to local law enforcement.

All in all, the findings aren't particularly groundbreaking; they indicate that while federal scrutiny and the threat of financial damages might be somewhat effective at boosting the number of reported assaults, a more hands-on approach might be required. Regardless, something -- on the campuses that underreport sexual assault, at the DOE, in Congress -- needs to change.

By Jenny Kutner

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