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How Efforts to Address Campus Rape Could Backfire

Colleges are incentivized to underreport sexual assault.

On April 10, two Republican and 10 Democratic members of Congress penned a letter to the US News & World Report, suggesting that the most authoritative college ranking report in the country include a rating of each college’s handling of sexual assault on campus. The hope is that this would incentivize colleges to take sexual assault seriously and reform many of their relevant policies, and that it would help potential students and their families make a more informed decisions throughout the college application process. All this to reduce the students’ risk of sexual attacks while in college.

The rating would factor in Clery reports, government-mandated disclosures of campus violence for those colleges that participate in federal financial aid programs. In addition the letter suggests the ratings include violations of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on gender at schools that receive federal funding. The authors also suggested that the colleges’ effectiveness in preventing and responding to sexual assault be taken into account. This last suggestion is not elaborated upon much in this three-paragraph recommendation; these details are for a committee to determine at a later date. U.S. News as of now has agreed to discuss these reforms with members of Congress, whatever that means.

“[Colleges] that fail to adequately respond to sexual violence should not receive accolades from your publication,” the representatives write.

The letter comes at a time when sexual assault on college campuses has been generating many private and public conversations. In just a few months the issue has been elevated from a problem to an “epidemic,” thanks in great part to student organizing grabbing the attention of the media and refusing to let go. Fifty-five colleges are currently under investigation for their handling of sexual assault.  

April opened with allegations leveled at Harvard that it had violated Title IX in not making victims fully aware of their rights, and at times, discouraging them from taking remedial action through the courts and disciplinary committees. A few days ago 23 students filed Title IX, Title II and Clery complaints against Columbia, and a federal investigation is underway at the University of Chicago, which has a history of delegitimizing allegations of sexual assault.

But while plans that push for the standardization of proceedings and rankings of effectiveness are well-intentioned and look like progress at face value, in fact these reforms should only be instituted sparingly and with the utmost caution, as there are many ways in which they could backfire, only further exacerbating a problem with deep social and economic roots.

Silencing and Standardizing Sexual Assault

The first, most glaring problem is, quite simply, that you can’t rank your way to reform. Colleges are already incentivized to underreport sexual assault. They are also incentivized against discouraging patriarchal structures of shaming that stop victims from telling their stories in the first place.

One in five women experience attempted or completed sexual assault while in college, according to the Department of Justice, as do 6% of men. Ninety percent of college rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.

A year-long study conducted by the Center for Public Integrity in 2009 discovered that “‘responsible’ findings rarely lead to tough punishments like expulsion—even in cases involving alleged repeat offenders.” Only 10-25% of men found guilty of sexual assault are expelled from college. Punishments that don’t qualify as “tough” include colleges making the perpetrator write a research paper, which is likely what they’re in school to do in the first place.

In spite of the prevalence of sexual assault and the culture of silence, college administrators do their part to further repress these reports. One study found that 95% of sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported. More likely than not those 55 schools under investigation, and probably many more, have something to do with that number.

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