More than 40 percent of colleges and universities in the United States didn’t conduct a single sexual assault investigation on their campuses within the past five years, even though federal law requires them to do so if they have reason to believe a crime occurred, according to a survey administered by the office of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
That was one of the more alarming statistics revealed Wednesday by the release of the survey (PDF) of more than 300 four-year colleges and universities.
McCaskill is teaming up with fellow Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to write new legislation over the summer to address the pervasive problem of sexual assault on college campuses and also hopes to reach across the aisle to create bipartisan support on the issue.
The legislation comes in response to growing complaints from college students across the country that their schools have mishandled their sexual assault cases and after a White House task force in April called on colleges to take a more active role in preventing and punishing sexual violence.
“There’s a reason this crime is among the most underreported crimes,” McCaskill told reporters in a telephone briefing on Wednesday. “For the survivors, this is the most personally painful moment of their lives. And for them to share the details of that, it is essential that there is a system that they can access easily and is supportive of them.”
McCaskill’s staff sent the survey to 440 four-year colleges and universities of varying sizes, including public, nonprofit private and for-profit private schools, asking them about sexual assault training, education and coordination with law enforcement, among other questions. A total of 319 schools completed the survey.
McCaskill said individual schools’ responses would not be revealed because the purpose of the survey was to inform legislation, not to punish noncompliance.
Among the findings were that more than 40 percent of the schools in the national sample haven’t conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the past few years. Even worse, 21 percent of the largest private schools surveyed investigated fewer sexual assault cases than the number they reported to the Department of Education each year. Accurate reporting of campus crime statistics to the government is legally required by the federal Clery Act.
Sometimes the number of assaults reported to the Department of Education was seven times the number of cases a school had investigated, the report said.
Rather than concluding that those schools simply don’t have a problem with sexual assault, the survey’s implication is that many U.S. colleges are turning a blind eye when it comes to investigating and adjudicating on-campus sexual violence.
“That was a big problem that we had at Berkeley,” said Sofie Karasek, a rising senior at the University of California, Berkeley, who spearheaded on-campus efforts to file Title IX and Clery Act complaints against the university on behalf of dozens of students who allege it mishandled their sexual violence and harassment complaints.
“Now we have some nationwide data that corroborates that that’s a bigger problem, rather than just at institutions in California,” she said.
Among other findings of the survey, one-third of the schools reported that they didn’t provide even basic training to those campus staffers who are tasked with adjudicating sexual assault or harassment cases.
Other startling statistics in the survey included these: 30 percent of the schools had campus law enforcement that received no training regarding sexual assault cases; 73 percent reported that they have no protocols on how to coordinate with local law enforcement in addressing sexual assault cases; and 30 percent said they didn’t provide any sexual assault education or training for students.
The challenge, McCaskill said, is to develop protocols for a “team approach” between college campuses and local law enforcement that allows students confidentiality and agency in choosing how to respond to the assault, but also follows proper forensic and investigative procedures so students can prosecute if they so choose.
“There is a calcified belief that going to law enforcement is a mistake for a victim,” she said. “Part of that is because law enforcement has done a bad job in terms of training and handling these cases.”
Fewer than 5 percent of college students who have been raped report their attack to law enforcement, according to the Department of Justice (PDF).
Moreover, even though federal law requires that all colleges have a Title IX coordinator to ensure the school adheres to the law, more than 10 percent of the colleges surveyed said they didn’t have one.
Finally, in a finding that McCaskill called “borderline outrageous,” 1 in every 5 colleges reported that athletic departments were allowed to oversee sexual assault cases involving athletes. “This is something that has been allowed to exist because no one was paying close attention,” she said, adding that athletic departments “are the most powerful entities that exist” on some campuses.
The last time a survey of campus approaches to sexual assault cases was taken was in 2002 (PDF), by the Education Development Center, the University of Cincinnati and the Police Executive Research Forum for the U.S. Justice Department.
While advocates said the survey was a big step in the right direction for making sure colleges and lawmakers maintain transparency as they work toward creating a better system, far more needs to be done.
“The trick is that rapists tend to be serial criminals,” said Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an anti-sexual-violence advocacy group that operates a confidential support hotline. “So the only way to really fix the problem in the long run is to prosecute more cases, and take more of these rapists out of the picture in the sense of having criminal consequences.”
That means better training for law enforcement and coordination between campuses and law enforcement, he said, adding, “Right now, the environment is such that the vast majority of victims choose not to report [sexual violence]. We need to change that environment so that the instinct of most victims is that reporting is in their best interests.”
But Karasek of UC Berkeley, who was sexually assaulted by the leader of a campus group during an off-campus retreat, and who chose not to report the incident to law enforcement, thinks it is important for the Department of Education to make sure it has the proper resources to investigate formal complaints issued by students.
“Now, for the first time, schools are under a lot of scrutiny, and [the Department of Education] needs to make sure there are enough people who are working there to hold them accountable and to enforce these statutes,” she said.
While Berkowitz said there is an immense challenge in amending the system, because there are a multitude of factors involved, he said the attention being paid to campus sexual assaults in 2014 has been unprecedented.
“I think there’s been more work on this issue and more change in the last two months than there’s been in the last decade,” he said. “And I’m hopeful that this report is going to edify to student activists where their school might be falling short and lead them to pressure administrators to bring their policies to the level of other schools in the country.”