OPED: The danger of focusing on sexual-assault reporting on campuses

Radha Iyengar
The Dallas Morning News (TNS)
  • The danger of an exclusive focus on reporting goes beyond misinterpreting trends.
  • Instead of focusing on reporting, colleges should consider devoting resources to support victims.

Reports that Baylor University in Texas mishandled sexual assault cases, punishing victims and suppressing reports of alleged assaults by members of the football team is the latest evidence that universities nationwide are struggling to address this issue.

Penn State York student Michelle Lin on campus following her night class, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Recent evidence suggests that many universities understate how often sexual violence occurs on campus, likely fearing an impact on both college enrollment and fund raising. A group of Baylor donors and alumni released a report that estimated the sexual-assault allegations could cost the school as much as $223 million in fees, lost revenue and donations.

It is clear that sexual assault is far too common on college campuses. While the methods of analysis are still being debated, studies from the American Association of Universities, the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation and the Bureau of Justice Statistics have all shown that about one in five undergraduate women experience some form of sexual violence on campus. In response, colleges and universities, along with state legislatures and Congress, have proposed potential solutions that focus on increasing public awareness and law enforcement involvement in sexual assaults on campus. Several states have passed or are considering legislation to require that all sexual assault reports on campus be turned over to local law enforcement.

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The goal of many of these proposed changes is to pressure universities to better address sexual violence on campus by increasing the schools’ accountability, which includes making the actions they take when dealing with sexual assault more transparent. But this focus on improving reporting, while well-intentioned, can confuse decision makers and risks harming the very students they seek to protect.

The focus on reporting is understandable because reporting rates provide a clear, observable way to track sexual assaults and measure progress in dealing with them. However, reporting rates are not a good indicator of the pervasiveness of sexual violence on campus. Lower reported sexual assault rates cannot distinguish whether the lower rate is due to a lower total number of sexual assaults or to victims lacking confidence in school personnel and being unwilling to disclose assaults to them. Universities with low reported rates of sexual assault could have a higher proportion of victims who decide to stay silent because they simply do not wish to subject themselves to the trauma of going public and deal with the criminal justice or university adjudicative process. In fact, the Department of Justice estimates 80 percent of sexual assaults on campuses go unreported.

This relationship between improved victim services and increased reporting of sexual assaults has been observed in the U.S. military. In response to public and Congressional scrutiny, the military began in 2013 to dramatically revise how it responds to sexual assaults of service members, including providing victims with trained legal advocates. Victims could access services either through complaints to commanders or law enforcement, or through a confidential reporting mechanism that allowed victims and survivors to access support resources without requiring them to notify law enforcement or the military commander.

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Some observers were surprised when there appeared to be an increase in sexual assault reports. Taken at face value, it was unclear if this was due to a continued and growing problem or greater willingness to report and seek support services. However, a detailed RAND survey on experience with sexual violence in the military found a decline in overall sexual-assault experiences over the same time period. This dichotomy illustrates both the importance of mechanisms that allow confidential reporting to access victim-support resources and the potentially misleading conclusions that can be drawn when focusing only on reporting.

The danger of an exclusive focus on reporting goes beyond misinterpreting trends. Higher reporting rates could encourage universities to offer fewer rather than more on-campus services for sexual-assault victims. Initiatives that use reporting data that ranks colleges could dissuade universities from establishing key victim support mechanisms because the mechanism may actually increase reporting.

Such a focus may also reduce reporting by victims and draw resources away from providing victims with support. Policies that mandate university personnel report sexual-assault cases to law enforcement may deter victims from wanting to report an assault if they want to avoid a law-enforcement investigation. Such policies also may deter them from using associated victim-support mechanisms. This does a disservice to sexual-assault victims who choose not to report an incident to law enforcement but would otherwise be able to access immediate relief provided by universities (such as changes in class schedules or housing to avoid the alleged attacker).

Instead of focusing on reporting, universities should consider devoting resources to support victims of sexual violence on campus. University policymakers and state and federal legislators should find ways to require regular assessments of victim-support services that take into account campus demographics and the needs of specific members of the student body (such as the LGBT population or students of color). Universities also should be required to publish the level and type of resources and support services they provide sexual-assault victims on campus to demonstrate that they meet or exceed the appropriate metrics.

Accurate reporting of sexual violence is important, but the counting and reporting of assaults should not be confused with policies that focus on making sure universities have the necessary resources and support systems they need to help victims of sexual violence.

With sustained attention and targeted policy mandates, universities can better support victims and survivors on campus while trying to reduce the incidences of violence in the first place.

— Radha Iyengar is a senior economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. She wrote this for the Dallas Morning News.