Megan Bean/AP

Survey: Schools fail to investigate sexual assaults

A landmark government survey found systemic failures in how colleges handle sexual assault

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Its grim statistics and harrowing first-hand accounts have made headlines for months, but sexual assault remains an invisible issue on most college campuses, according to a government survey released Wednesday. More than 40 percent of colleges and universities in a national sample haven’t conducted a single investigation into an incident of sexual violence in the last five years.

In the first probe is the first of kind, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Financial & Contracting Oversight surveyed 319 colleges and universities over the past three months. It found systemic failures in how campuses handle the problem of sexual violence, and Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who requested the survey and is drafting legislation on the issue, called the results a “wakeup call.”

Around 41 percent of schools in the national sample reported that they had not conducted an investigation into a sexual case in five years. Investigations were much rarer at private for-profit school and small schools. In a separate sample of the country's largest public schools, the survey found that 94 percent had conducted an investigation in this time frame.

The lack of investigations is largely due to the chronic underreporting of sexual violence on college campuses, the findings show, although in a fraction of cases, schools fail to investigate even when a report is made. Studies indiciate that around 1 in 5 female students experience sexual assault or attempted assault before they graduate, and McCaskill called this discrepancy “perhaps the most disturbing” of the results.

“There’s no way that at 41 percent of campuses there were no sexual assaults in the last 5 years,” she said on a call with reporters.

Schools that receive federal funding are required to promptly investigate any incident of sexual violence under federal law. But the report found that 9 percent of schools in the national sample, and more than 1 in 5 of the nation’s largest private institutions, conducted fewer investigations than the number of sexual violence incidents they reported.

“That is violating the black letter law of this country,” McCaskill said.

Some schools, the report found, had seven times more cases of sexual violence than investigations. The survey included a national sample of 236 schools, as well as an additional 83 of the country’s largest public and private four-year schools. In contrast to the 41 percent result in the national sample, just 6 percent of the largest public schools had not investigated a sexual assault incident in the same timeframe. 

For purposes of more honest self-reporting, the specific colleges were kept anonymous.

At 22 percent of schools, athletic departments are given oversight of sexual assault cases involving student athletes.

Congressional survey on college sexual assault

“Unfortunately, the disturbing bottom line of this unprecedented, nationwide survey, is that many institutions continually violate the law and fail to follow best practices in how they handle sexual violence,” McCaskill said in a press release, later adding that she believed these failures came down to a mix of bureaucratic indifference and money.

Also in violation of Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to address sexual violence, more than 10 percent of institutions in the national sample don’t have a Title IX coordinator on staff, according to the survey.

The probe found chronic failures in how colleges and universities train faculty, staff, students and police to respond to sexual assault. At 30 percent of schools, the report found, police receive no training in how to respond to reports of sexual violence. 

For sexual assault cases that reach the adjudication stage, the report found a yawning gap between the law and best practices and what happens on the ground. Thirty-three percent of schools don’t provide adequate training to even the individuals adjudicating sexual assault cases. Forty-three percent of the nation’s largest public schools let students help adjudicate these cases, and in a finding McCaskill called “borderline outrageous,” at 22 percent of schools in the national sample, athletic departments are given oversight of cases involving student athletes.

At 43 percent of the nation’s largest public schools, students are allowed to help adjudicate sexual assault cases.

Congressional survey on college sexual assault

“It’s hard enough to get a victim to come forward when there is at least a perception that the process is going to be fair,” she said, let alone when the athletic department will be making the decisions in a case involving a scholarship athlete.

Colleges have also failed in large numbers to adopt measures that would encourage reporting of sexual assaults. Around 8 percent of schools don’t allow victims to report confidentially. Only around half of schools in the national sample provide a hotline to sexual assault victims, and 56 percent didn’t offer a way for students to report online. The country's largest schools were far more likely to have this option. 

McCaskill, along with Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, are currently drafting legislation to address how colleges handle sexual assault. In a series of roundtables McCaskill held on the issue over the last two months, she has indicated that the bill will likely mandate that schools conduct climate surveys to better measure the scope of the problem, and also address issues of training, a victim’s right to confidentiality, coordination between schools and law enforcement and the penalties schools receive for failing to meet legal requirements.

If a school violates Title IX, the only punishment currently on the books is suspending a school’s federal aid, essentially punishing students.

“It also doesn’t make sense to threaten something we’re never going to do,” McCaskill said.

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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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