What do the Numbers Really Say? Recording Sexual Assault on American Campuses

So, I told a new friend that I go to Columbia. "Oh, really?" she said. "My Dad wouldn't let me apply there. He says it's in Harlem."

Not according to the glossy pamphlets. Columbia University in the City of New York -- that's the official name -- is located in Morningside Heights, a part of the city they describe as a "lively and livable cosmopolitan neighborhood." It is, in fact, separated from the rest of Harlem by a steep cliff and a low stone wall. This helps to allay but by no means erase parents' fears about sending their children to school in a nearly all-black, all-poor part of Manhattan. In fact one of the questions most frequently asked on the campus tours is, "how safe is it here ... am I going to get mugged?" To this the tour guide will most likely smile and say, "probably not."

Now you can find out if he's telling the truth. The Student Right-To-Know and Campus Security Act, first passed in 1992 and since modified, requires schools of higher education to report all local crime statistics to the Department of Education. Anything reported to campus security goes on a record the students can see, and any criminal offense that is reported either to security or to the police must be submitted to the DOE for public display on their website (www.ope.ed.gov/security).

This is designed to work like a warning label for prospective students -- i.e., "Beware: there is a 5 percent chance you'll be mugged" -- and makes safety as easy to gauge and compare between schools as the mean SAT score, or class size.

It's a good idea. But does it work? When I went to the OPE website to check on Columbia, I found that the university reported only two rapes on or near the campus last year, 1999. But I personally knew of at least half a dozen. It wasn't that the university was hiding something -- it was that the students never told security. Sixty-four percent of rape survivors do not go to the police at all (FBI data, as reported on http://www.fullpower.com/stats/stats1.html).

Why aren't sexual assaults being reported? Sexual assault is a complex crime. The most common form is date rape, which occurs in situations where the sex could, in theory, have been consensual. When a student reports that it was, in fact, forcible, criminal, he or she is often met with skepticism. "Are you sure you aren't just mad at her?" "Are you lying to get him in trouble?" Or worse yet, the student is blamed. "Maybe you had a little bit too much to drink that night." "That dress was asking for it." Given these consequences -- stigma, blame, guilt -- many victims choose to avoid further trauma and keep their mouths shut.

No doubt with this in mind, the Campus Security Act was amended (as of 1992) to include The Campus Sexual Assault Victim's Bill of Rights. It was also renamed the Clery Act in 1998, in the name of a student rape victim, Jeanne Clery. This Bill of Rights requires that every institution of higher learning form a policy on sexual assault, including both preventative measures and procedures to follow once an assault has occurred. According to the Security on Campus webpage, the Clery act was "developed to combat the re-victimization of rape survivors at college campuses across the country who found that many image-conscious schools were more concerned about protecting their image than seeing justice done."

The Clery Act has received added media attention this Fall, when the senate passed legislation that will (beginning in 2002) require states to ask every sex offender if they are enrolled at or employed by a college or university, and to make that information available to the public.

The Cleary Act is enforced by the Department of Education and all universities receiving federal aid must comply with its relgulations. If they don't by, say, failing to report crimes accurately or not making the stastics available to the student body, they are posted on the Security on Campus, Inc. page, at www.soconline.org. As of December 4, 2000, there were over 200 universities listed.

The first half of the Cleary Act suggest that universities and colleges develop "preventative measures" which are meant "to promote the awareness of rape." The Act allows for interpretation based on an institution's principles, which often differ greatly based on the university's religious affiliation. And while some degree of interpretation on the part of the university makes sense, the Act doesn't appear to have strong enough guidelines about how to promote this awareness in a way that is engaging and real, without enforcing fear tactics.

Another preventative measure the Act asks for is education, so that students know what rape is, when it happens, and what to do if it should happen to them. Like disciplinary proceedings, it makes sense that this education process should vary from school to school, in accordance with what each school's approach to students' sexuality. Unfortunately, there is no minimum requirement for what this education should look like. Too often it tends to come in the form of a short, optional, first-week-of-class presentation that no one attends.

The next half of the Victim's Bill of Rights is even trickier. It concerns procedures to be followed once a rape has happened. While schools do have to inform survivors of their options (to contact the local police; to call campus security, to switch dorms) and all the available counseling services, there has been no standard set of rules as to what each schools should offer in terms of counseling or crisis guidance. The preventative measures provided for under the Clery Act presume that universities will know what to do after a rape has occured. In fact, many do not. School administrators must be made more aware of how to deal with sexual assault, and extra measures must be taken to ensure an accurate report of sexual assault statistics.

Unfortunately the Clery Act does not complete the circle by including specific guidelines about punishing sexual assault. And in many cases, it allows for schools to decide whether they want to punish the perpetrator at all, causing many young women to question the value of reporting the crime in the first place. Distinct but vital differences in a university's approach to sexuality, social issues and women's issues might tell an applicant as much about a college as any staistics. But, if safety is a concern, it may be more important to get ahold of a university's specific policies on sexual assault.

Of course, it is not in the university's best interest to make sure each rape gets reported. The lower their crime rate, the likelier students will feel safe attending their school, which means more applicants. This act is a good first step in bringing about justice, in those schools that may be "concerned about protecting their image" but it is just that, one step. Ultimately, students have to make sure that their school establishes fair sexual assault policies. And in many cases, this means writing the policies themselves.

(For two examples of this, see http://www.columbia.edu/cu/safer or http://www.antioch-college.edu/survival/html/sopp.html.)

Twilight Greenaway contributed to this article

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