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Unsurprising study finds colleges underreport sexual violence

A new study confirms that what student activists have been saying for awhile now: colleges treat sexual assault as a PR issue and underreport the problem if they can get away with it

The research, by Corey Rayburn Yung, a law professor at the University of Kansas, looked at the reports of sexual assault at 31 colleges. When they were under the scrutiny of an audit by Department of Education, “the reported numbers of sexual assaults increased by approximately 44 percent on average from previously reported levels. After the audits ended, the reported number of sexual assaults in following years dropped to pre-audit levels, evidence that some schools provided a more accurate picture of sexual assaults on campus only when they were under federal scrutiny, the study concluded.”

“Colleges and universities still aren’t taking the safety of their students from sexual assault seriously,” Yung says. “The study shows that many universities continue to view rape and sexual assault as a public relations issue rather than a safety issue. They don’t want to be seen as a school with really high sexual assault numbers, and they don’t want to go out of their way to report that information to students or the media.”

While the Clery Act punishes schools for failing to accurately report crimes on campus, Yung says the fine — $35,000 per violation — is clearly not high enough to get schools to comply long-term; those that have been fined behave just like those that haven’t. It seems there needs to be a greater disincentive to overcome to overwhelming incentive schools have to downplay the problem on their campuses.

The Campus Accountability and Safety Act introduced in Congress last year, would help “flip the incentives,” according its co-sponsor Senator Kristin Gillibrand, by raising the fines under the Clery Act to $150,000 per each violation and making student surveys on their experiences with sexual violence publicly available online. As Dana wrote recently, student pressure has helped improve some schools’ reporting compliance. “But it shouldn’t be students’ job to remind schools to comply with the law, or to enforce it. That’s the federal government’s.

Header image credit: New York City’s NOW

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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