Glimmers of progress in fight against college sex assault

The number of sexual assaults included in college crime statistics has nearly doubled, from about 3,300 in 2009 to just over 6,000 in 2013, according to new federal data. It's a sign of growing awareness of the problem.

Amy Anthony/AP
Hundreds of Brown University students march across campus, in March, in Providence, R.I., to protest the college's handling of recent sexual assault allegations.

More college sexual assaults are being reported, according to new federal data. It’s an important sign of progress, advocates say, indicating growing awareness about these often-unreported crimes and the kinds of supports that colleges should have in place to help students who come forward.

The number of sexual assaults included in college crime statistics has nearly doubled, from about 3,300 in 2009 to just over 6,000 in 2013.

The numbers being officially reported are still only a sliver of the sexual assaults occurring, according to student surveys. Also, there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of civil rights complaints from people who believe their college did not adequately respond to their reported assault.

“The numbers indicate people are coming forward,” and that’s largely the result of student activism, says Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, a nonprofit advocacy and training organization in Wayne, Pa. “You have groups of students who have really started a movement through social media and other channels ... and we’ve seen that spread throughout the country.... They got everyone from other students to the White House to pay attention.”

The federal government has been making “a real good-faith effort to be transparent about reports they are getting,” Ms. Kiss adds.

But the numbers are just a starting point, and “there’s a lot more work to do on campuses in terms of students knowing where to go to come forward ... [and understanding] consent and issues of prevention,” she says. While some campuses have built comprehensive systems, others haven’t taken basic steps such as designating a Title IX coordinator to oversee campus responses to sexual assault and harassment.

The latest summary of data was released Tuesday in a letter from the US Department of Education, in response to requests for more transparency from Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Tim Kaine of Virginia.

The data that show the near doubling of sexual assault reports draw on colleges’ annual Clery reports, required by a national campus safety law.

“Campuses are more effectively responding to Clery requirements, and their policies and procedures are becoming more thorough and effective,” says Laura Palumbo, prevention campaign specialist for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Enola, Pa. But “there is still a lot of concern that because of the reputation incentive that campuses have, these numbers aren’t going to be as accurate as they need to be.”

Some studies have estimated that 1 out of 5 female students experience sexual victimization during their college years. Many choose not to come forward, but even when the crimes are reported, campuses have sometimes put them in the wrong categories in their crime reports. That situation has perhaps started improving because of a new law that takes effect in the fall (but that some schools are already following), which is more specific about how to report crimes ranging from stalking and domestic violence to rape, says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in Washington.

When reports of sexual assaults go up on campus, instead of worrying about their reputation, “the smart schools take that as an opportunity to say, ‘This is happening at every campus, so make sure you go to a campus that is handling it head on,’ ” Ms. Maatz adds.

The letter from the US Department of Education also shows that the number of Title IX complaints related to how campuses handle sexual violence increased more than 10-fold between fiscal years 2009 and 2014 – from nine to 102. In the first six months of the current fiscal year, 51 such complaints were filed.

Title IX is the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal dollars. It encompasses everything from inequitable sports resources and pregnancy discrimination to sexual harassment and assault. It is enforced by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

In FY 2009, it took OCR an average of 379 days to investigate postsecondary sexual-violence Title IX complaints (OCR also handles more than a dozen such complaints from elementary and secondary schools each year). By FY 2014, the average length of investigation was up to 1,049 days. That was due to a backlog in cases along with a surge of new cases, the letter explained, but the time is starting to decrease as more old cases are closed out.

President Obama’s budget proposal earlier this year includes $131 million for OCR, an increase of about 31 percent. In March, Senators Boxer, Gillibrand, and Kaine urged Congress to approve that funding.

“This new data makes clear why the Education Department must step up its efforts to address the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, and why Congress must ensure it has the resources it needs to protect students,” Senator Boxer said in a statement Tuesday.

OCR publishes Title IX resolution agreements with universities to help other campuses understand better how to comply with the requirements for responding to complaints of sexual assault and harassment.

It also recently published the first Title IX Resource Guide to help Title IX coordinators better understand their responsibilities.

That was “one good proactive step,” Maatz says. But the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, which AAUW chairs, would also like to see money appropriated for the currently nonfunded Women’s Educational Equity Act, intended to provide resources and training for better enforcement of Title IX.

“We’re happy about the increased enforcement, and that’s why schools are now paying attention,” Maatz says, but many education officials are saying they need more help, so “there needs to be more proactive training.”

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