Baylor University spokeswoman Lori Fogleman is probably right that the uptick in the low number of sexual assaults on campus likely results from commendable efforts encouraging victims of such crimes to actually report them — something colleges nationwide haven’t always done well. Then again, U.S. Department of Education officials admit the federally mandated reports on college crime stats are open to interpretation, partially because of great variance in how some figures are tallied, often to the point of absurd inaccuracy.
The most recent report appeared the same time the Columbus Dispatch and Student Press Law Center offered a stinging analysis of how college-by-college comparisons can be utterly irrelevant, given that some colleges honestly document sexual assaults while others underreport them through such loopholes as whether the complaint resulted in a conviction or whether the alleged sexual assault happened on campus or off.
For instance, colleges and universities are required to list any sexual assaults reported on campus or near campus. Unfortunately, the word “near” invites interpretation. Result: Nearly a fifth of some 1,800 schools studied by the Dispatch and SPLC stated there had not been a sexual assault in 12 years — pretty hard to believe. Among these schools: Urbana University, where a student told police in 2012 she was gang-raped.
The problem of sexual assault is one faculty, students and parents on any campus must be vigilant and vocal about, holding administrators’ feet to the fire. It demands sweeping definitions of what constitutes sexual assault. According to a 2001 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, at least 80 percent of sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance — and nearly half of college victims whose attacks met the study’s definition of rape did not consider the acts rapes.
Just as important as statistics reported by McLennan Community College (no reported rapes the past three years), Texas State Technical College (three rapes last year, all in off-campus housing nearby) and Baylor (four rapes, two fondling incidents, all but one in on-campus residence halls) is what colleges do to fight the problem. Baylor introduced a new sexual assault prevention program this fall and offers counseling 24 hours a day. TSTC will introduce a series of four-hour classes next month on the subject.
Colleges and universities nationwide have plenty of incentives to take all this seriously beyond even the safety of their students. These range from the annual figures’ incorporation into college-ranking reports by such entities as U.S. News & World Report to the fact some in Congress and the White House want more severe sanctions against those scholarly institutions that lie or bungle the reporting of campus crime figures each year.
Yet study after study shows the most serious concern: student safety, something all colleges must ensure when 1 in 5 college-age women is a rape survivor and 74 percent of sexual assaults go unreported.