The Washington Post recently crunched the data on sexual violence at college campuses; according to their findings, Penn State had the highest number of reported cases in 2012 — which was only fifty-six. Forty-five percent of schools with over 1,000 students, in fact, report zero rape cases for the entire year.
I'm sure some might read this data as reassuring. However, since one in five women will be sexually assaulted during their time at college, it's actually deeply worrying: as Emily Shire argues at the Daily Beast, it is "statistically impossible for a university not to have suffered any incidences of forcible sexual offenses on campus." Therefore, when a institution of higher learning reports zero instances of sexual violence, it doesn't mean that the campus is safe and happy and rape-free. What is really means is that students aren't coming forward — either because the administration is discouraging them from reporting or collecting misleading data, or because sexual assault survivors are afraid to speak out.
As Tracey Vitchers, a spokesperson for Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER), told Shire:
"It's unreasonable to think any school has zero sexual assault or crime." Schools self-report Clery Act numbers, she explains, so there are a number of potential loopholes in the tracking. "There are some accusations of schools under-reporting or misrepresenting. Rather than labeling something as sexual assault, they may label it just as assault so it looks less severe," she says. A school with zero forcible sexual offenses may also indicate that "people aren't reporting because of other barriers."
Last month, several professors and sexual assault activists worked together to create a map based on the reporting data and this principle; it overlays the Clery sexual assault reporting numbers with the estimates of how many students, statistically, would be sexually assaulted on campus per year.
Carol Stabile, one of the professors who helped create the map, told me that she wants to answer the question of "the difference between the estimate and the report" because "therein lies the problem." According to Stabile, "What we want to see is some relationship between the estimated number of sexual assaults and the Clery data. If you have really low reporting, then you know there's a problem at that institution."
In an interview earlier this year, Occidental professor Caroline Heldman told me that the idea that sexual assault reporting statistics should be punitively included in college rankings is fundamentally misleading. "Of all the co-ed residential colleges across the nation, there isn't a single one that's exempt [from the campus rape epidemic], so the schools with the higher numbers are actually schools where the survivors feel more comfortable coming forward," she told me. "It's a sad fact that we want higher [reporting] numbers." She also believes that the schools under Title IX investigation — there are now 64 of them — are probably safer for students: "These are the schools you should probably be sending your kids to, because that means that there's a network of survivor activists who are pushing back."
It's a grim reality, but a reality nonetheless, that sexual assault is an epidemic on college campuses. As college administrations endeavor to fix it, they need to address it head-on. This means no more sweeping reports of sexual misconduct under the rug. This means no more putting reputational concerns first and recognizing that low reporting numbers are indicative of a huge cultural problem — not of effective sexual assault policies.
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