Campus sexual assault is one of the most talked-about issues in the field right now, from media coverage of the affirmative consent standard to colleges, to the famous 1 in 5 statistic about victimization of college women, to documentaries about universities mishandling reports of sexual assault. My colleagues have been talking a lot about these documentaries, so I was excited to find new research that sheds some light on how colleges really are mishandling reports of sexual assault.
The Clery Act requires that colleges and universities publicly report how many instances of certain types of crimes, including rape and other sexual assault, are reported on their campus. But many experts in campus sexual assault believe that Clery reports are serious underestimates of the real prevalence of campus sexual assault.
The new study by Corey Rayburn Yung of the University of Kansas tried to figure out if campuses really are underreporting sexual assault, and if so, whether their underreporting is any worse for sexual assault than for other crimes, like burglary or aggravated assault. It looked at past Clery report numbers of 31 universities (all four-year, and all with 10,000 or more students) that had undergone Clery audits by the Department of Education from 2001-2012. It compared their reported rates of sexual assault before, during, and after the audits.
Consistently, Clery reports of sexual assault went way up during the audit — by an average of 44%. For the sake of comparison, Clery reports of burglary, robbery, and aggravated assault also increased, but by far smaller amounts (closer to 10%). And law enforcement reports of sexual assault in the areas around the schools did not show similar increases during the audit periods, which means that Clery reports of sexual assault were significantly undercounted before the audit, and more so than other crimes. Also, in the period after the audit, Clery reports of sexual assault went right back down to the rates from before the audit, whereas the reports of other kinds of crimes stayed at about the same level as they were during the audit. So clearly, these universities were undercounting sexual assault in a unique way.
The study offers some possible explanations for this undercounting. First, it suggests that university staff might accept rape myths and have an “exaggerated belief in false reporting,” leading them to dismiss cases that should be reported. Second, the employees who are responsible for reporting these crimes might have professional incentives to report lower crime statistics “to further career goals and preserve their institution’s reputation,” especially since Clery reports are public. Finally, the article suggests that underreporting might be a result of administrators seeking to avoid scandal and Title IX complaints and investigations, which carry the risk of much larger fines than Clery reporting violations.
You might be wondering, since this is an article about Clery reporting and prevention, what this study has to do with prevention. The institutional practices of dismissing, minimizing, and denying instances of sexual assault look an awful lot to me like community and societal risk factors for sexual violence perpetration: lack of institutional support from the campus investigative and judicial systems, general tolerance of sexual violence in the campus community, weak sanctions against sexual violence perpetrators, weak laws and policies, and high tolerance of these crimes. The kinds of policies that would help enforce Clery reporting requirements, just like the policies that have enabled survivors to file Title IX complaints that lead to serious investigations, should be part of a comprehensive prevention approach. Institutional and individual accountability are important parts of prevention.
Full citation: Yung, C. R. (2015). Concealing campus sexual assault: An empirical examination. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 21(1), 1-9. doi:10.1037/law0000037
Link to full article (free): http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/law-0000037.pdf
This study tests whether there is substantial undercounting of sexual assault by universities. It compares the sexual assault data submitted by universities while being audited for Clery Act violations with the data from years before and after such audits. If schools report higher rates of sexual assault during times of higher regulatory scrutiny (audits), then that result would support the conclusion that universities are failing to accurately tally incidents of sexual assault during other time periods. The study finds that university reports of sexual assault increase by approximately 44% during the audit period. After the audit is completed, the reported sexual assault rates drop to levels statistically indistinguishable from the preaudit time frame. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that the ordinary practice of universities is to undercount incidents of sexual assault. Only during periods in which schools are audited do they appear to offer a more complete picture of sexual assault levels on campus. Further, the data indicate that the audits have no long-term effect on the reported levels of sexual assault, as those crime rates return to previous levels after the audit is completed. This last finding is supported even in instances when fines are issued for noncompliance. The study tests for a similar result with the tracked crimes of aggravated assault, robbery, and burglary, but reported crimes show no statistically significant differences before, during, or after audits. The results of the study point toward 2 broader conclusions directly relevant to policymaking in this area. First, greater financial and personnel resources should be allocated commensurate with the severity of the problem and not based solely on university reports of sexual assault levels. Second, the frequency of auditing should be increased, and statutorily capped fines should be raised to deter transgressors from continuing to undercount sexual violence. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act, presently before Congress, provides an important step in that direction.