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Sexual assault reports jump 61 percent at top colleges in two years

From 2011 to 2013, reports of sex offenses increased significantly at the top 25 US universities

It's long been a mantra of advocates that the more attention sexual assault gets, the more people will come forward to report it, gradually making one of the most notoriously underreported crimes more visible.

If true, then the last couple years' focus on sexual assault at colleges should have sent campuses' reporting rates soaring. And that's exactly what has happened.

At America's top 25 universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, the number of reported sex offenses increased from an average of 12.5 in 2011 to 20.1 in 2013, according to an “America Tonight” analysis of new campus crime statistics. Carnegie Mellon University jumped from five reports to 16; Columbia University from four to 21; and Dartmouth University from 15 to 35. (For schools with multiple campuses, data from the flagship campus were used.)

Dave Gustafson/America Tonight

These numbers are still a fraction of the actual number of students who are sexual assaulted at college, studies show. But the trend is noteworthy and "nearly universal" across America's colleges, according to Brett Sokolow, the president of the law firm and consultancy the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, who has advised colleges on sexual assault policies for more than 15 years.

"It's not just that more women and men are reporting, they're reporting right away," he said. "The delay is gone."

All colleges and universities that receive federal funding must publish their crime statistics annually, as required by the 1990 Clery Act. At many schools, the number of reported "forcible sex offenses" has been long stuck in the single digits, infuriating advocates, who insist the low numbers aren't a rosy picture but a serious red flag.

Asked to explain the recent uptick, experts all pointed to the spotlight the issue has received over the last couple years, from student activism and dozens of federal Title IX complaints to unprecedented White House attention. As a result, they say, students are more likely to understand the crime, recognize their rights and know the process for reporting. And they're less likely to feel ashamed.

"The student activism campaign has been going for three decades, but for the last two years, you have students putting a face to this," said Alison Kiss, executive director of the nonprofit the Clery Center for Security on Campus. "In the past, we'd hear these stories, but survivors wouldn't want to attach their face to it publicly, for reasons I can understand… But now students are saying, 'I love my school and I want it to change.'"

She added: "It's, quite honestly, the power of the movement."

As more victims come forward, it also has a multiplier effect, according Tracey Vitchers, a spokeswoman for Students Active For Ending Rape

"A lot of it is strength in numbers," she said. "If you have multiple survivors coming forward, then they have the support of other survivors."

It also means more victims are discovering that their perpetrator is a serial offender, Vitchers added, causing them to see the classmate as an ongoing threat to the community and pushing them to report. 

Vice President Joe Biden hugs Madeleine Smith at the release of the first-ever White House report on sexual assault at colleges. Earlier, she had recounted her story of being raped while a student at Harvard.

Momentum on the issue was whipped up in spring 2011, when the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights published its "Dear Colleague" letter, pointedly reminding colleges of their responsibilities in handling sexual assault allegations. Since then, the Obama administration has been cracking down on Title IX violations. 

Of the 25 schools analyzed by America Tonight, one noticeable exception to the trend is Rice University, which had its reported sex offenses dip from three in 2011 to two in each of the last two years.

"You have to wonder what on earth is going on at a place like that, when what's happening everywhere else is the opposite," Sokolow said.

In a statement, Rice University's Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson defended the school's numbers, explaining that with a student body of less than 6,500, one would expect fewer reports than at larger schools.

"We investigate every report of sexual assault vigorously, and anyone found to have committed a sexual assault is separated from the university," he wrote. 

Duke University also bucked the trend, with eight reports in 2011 and seven in 2013. Duke's Vice President for Public Affairs Mike Schoenfeld said the school saw a jump a few years back, when they revised their reporting policies and amped up educational programs. Campus police were unable to provide past Clery reports in time to verify that for this report.

"We scrupulously follow the law when it comes to the Clery report," Schoenfeld said, "and can only go by the information that we have."

Student activists have been trying to raise awareness about the issue of campus assault for decades with efforts like the Clothesline Project, where victims anonymously decorate and display T-shirts. One major change of the last couple years, according to experts, is that more victims are coming forward and identifying themselves.
Tim Kimzey/AP

The numbers published in universities' Clery reports are a famously lousy metric for the frequency of sexual assault on a campus, partly because of the law's loopholes.

One is geographic. If a reported sexual assault took place in an off-campus building that isn't owned by an officially recognized student group, a school doesn't have to publish it. So, off-campus parties, like those thrown by fraternities, tend to be left out of the published statistics entirely. And fraternity brothers are more likely to rape than men who do not join a frat — three times as likely in their first year in college.

Of the 12 reported sexual assaults in Yale University's Clery report, for example, none took place off campus. How many are they missing? There's finally a clue. Starting in 2012, Yale became the only college to voluntarily publish data on all its reports of sexual assault. In 2013, that number was 19, or 58 percent more than its Clery figure.

Another Clery booby trap is where schools collect their numbers. Under the law, a university must gather its stats from campus and local police, as well as school officials with "significant responsibility for student and campus activities,” such as deans, coaches and academic advisers.

Princeton University reported 20 "sex offenses" in 2012 and 2011 and then six "sexual assaults" in 2013. This is because Princeton stopped including reports from confidential counselors last year, not because reporting actually dropped.
Princeton University

In 2003, Princeton University decided to go above and beyond the Clery law, including sex offense reports made to confidential counselors – inflating its own numbers in the interest of accuracy.

Then, last year, the university stopped, following inquiries from the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights "as well as other third parties," Princeton spokesman Martin Mbugua explained over email. He said he couldn't provide further details on the nature of the inquiries. 

The impact of that one tweak was enormous. If Princeton had included confidential counselor reports again this past year, its total would have been 23, according to Mbugua. But the university’s Clery report posted only six.

To get more accurate numbers on sexual assault, a bipartisan group of eight senators proposed legislation in July that would make anonymous "climate surveys" mandatory on American campuses.

But without more comprehensive data, the Clery numbers remain a meaningful indicator of the reports that managed to slip past the loopholes. The Clery Act is a "floor" for what schools should publish, said Alison Kiss of the Clery Center. And it's significant when that rock bottom number starts to rise. 

This year, colleges and universities had to add three new categories to their reports: domestic violence, dating violence and stalking. Schools with the most robust reporting on sex offenses, such as Columbia, Harvard, Stanford and Vanderbilt, listed double-digit reports in some of these categories.

But as was once the case for sexual assaults, at many schools, like Caltech, Cornell, Dartmouth, Yale and Rice, one number popped up again and again that makes experts squirm and advocates call foul: zero.

Infographic by Dave Gustafson

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Where to turn for help

If you have been the victim of a sexual assault or are a friend of a victim, live support is available at 800-565-HOPE (4673) or online here.

For more on campus safety and sexual assault prevention and help, visit our resources page.


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