Choosing a College? - Look Into How They Handle Rape

When I was 17 years old and choosing between Cornell and Wesleyan, rape was the farthest thing from my mind. And it's probably not high on the list of the millions of high school seniors and their parents who have to decide by May 1 which college is The One. They're often looking at student/faculty ratios and financial aid offers, major programs, Greek life and sports teams. 

But high-school seniors pouring over rape reporting statistics instead of acceptance letters? Not usually.

When I think back to my undergraduate days and my experience being sexually assaulted by a fellow student – let alone the secondary trauma of how badly the school treated me in the aftermath – it is one of the first things that springs to mind. That sexual assault was, without a doubt, one of the most formative things that happened to me in those four years. So why don't more people ask questions about a school's approach to preventing sexual violence before they choose a campus?

Those precious few who ask at all tend to check a school's reporting numbers, assuming that a low rate of rapes reported on a campus is a good sign. But most of the time the reverse is true: every campus has a rape problem – the ones where students feel comfortable reporting are actually safer campuses.

Reporting even on the best of campuses is shockingly low. The US Department of Justice estimates that one in five female students will be the victim of a sexual assault while she's on campus. While there are no reliable estimates about male sexual assault on campus, statistics indicate that at least one in 10 straight men, one in five bisexual men and one in three gay men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, and half of trans people will be, and some of those almost certainly happen at college.

So a college that says, "Nope, no rape here!" is likely a college that's doing everything it can to discourage victims from reporting, as numerous investigations have found – and a campus with a low reporting rate is likely a campus where rapists are free to keep finding more victims, as statistics show that most undetected rapists continue to offend. On the other hand, a university with a relatively high number of reported rapes is likely to be a place where victims expect to be taken seriously, and where rapists come to know that they may face real consequences.

Yet nearly a third of campuses surveyed aren't even meeting the minimum reporting standards required by the federal government via the Clery Act, according to a study by Safer and V-Day. That's to say nothing of what many schools are failing to do when it comes to providing avenues for anonymous reporting, running transparent and just judicial hearings, developing effective prevention programs, or even defining "sexual misconduct" in a way that requires students to practice affirmative consent.

It's no accident that many of the schools with open or recent Title IX investigations for violating their students' right to a violence-free campus have also investigated for Clery violations. The University of North CarolinaOccidental College, the University of California at BerkeleyDartmouth University and many other well-known institutions of higher learning are all facing investigations into and lawsuits over their handling of sexual assault cases. Yet click the link on the Department of Education's website that's supposed to allow "[p]arents and students" to "use the Internet to review campus crime statistics for colleges and university campuses online" and all you'll get is a "Service Unavailable" error message.

It's long past time to stop trusting schools (or the federal Department of Education) to report their numbers accurately or to do the right thing for the right reasons. Imagine what would happen if admitted seniors and their parents regularly asked real questions about campus efforts to prevent sexual violence. What if, acceptance letter in hand, students and parents asked not just what the reported numbers are, but what the school was doing to increase reporting on campus, how they define sexual misconduct, how community members are treated (and what their options are) if they're violated, and how schools regularly evaluate and improve the effectiveness of their prevention programs?

If colleges administrators knew their ability to actually improve safety on campus would impact their ability to attract the students they need to stay competitive, you'd see colleges competing to prove their campus is the leading innovator in reducing sexual assaults rather than just shoving violence into a dark corner where no one from the "outside" can see it.

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