April is sexual assault awareness month, and while this seems like an issue that should always be in the public conscious, it isn’t always taken seriously in our society. Some of the main offenders of this lackadaisical attitude are sadly college institutions.
The true horror of sexual assault on campus was made tragically clear in 1986, when a student at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Jeanne Clery, was raped and murdered in her dorm room by another student. The attack on Clery was one of 38 violent crimes that had been recorded at the university in three years and her parents sued and were awarded $2 million, arguing that their daughter would likely not have attended the school if the lack of campus safety was made clear. In response to the backlash that this incident caused, the Clery Act was signed in 1990 which imposes a $35,000 fine per unreported incident at a university and can suspend certain student financial aid programs for serious enough violations.
A criminal defense law firm in San Diego took data from the U.S. Department of Education and compiled a list of college campus crime rates in California, and sex crimes only comprise about 18% of all the crimes reported on campus, with burglary being the highest at 53%. This number may be low because, even with the penalties today, many instances of sexual assault go unreported.
Sometimes, this is by choice of the victim. According to a report by the Justice Department, only 20% of campus sexual assault victims go to the police. 10% say that what happened isn’t significant enough to warrant the attention of police and that it is a personal matter. Another 20% says that they fear retaliation of some kind.
Other times, however, institutions disguise the number of incidents that take place on their campus. For example, from 2010 to 2011, USC failed to report 13 sex offenses and Occidental College failed to report 19 incidents between 2007 and 2010. These are not the only colleges guilty of underreporting. A survey done late last year found that many colleges across the nation severely underreport incidents that happen on campus.
While it’s bad enough that a majority of sexual assault victims don’t feel comfortable reporting to police, many colleges underreport sexual assaults on campus because they are attempting to preserve their reputation and status as an attractive location for students to choose. If a college has a negative stigma for sexual assault, would you send your child to that school?
It’s true that there are challenges associated with reporting crimes that happen on or near college campuses. Many students live off campus and tracking every single crime that happens in the grey area between is no small task. Furthermore, any type of assault is a very sensitive subject that is not often publicized openly and false allegations do occur. However, it does raise questions about the level of trust that can be placed in these institutions ability to police their campuses.
It’s impossible for an institution to prevent every crime from happening, but they do have a responsibility to report them with transparency. Otherwise it becomes more profitable to preserve their reputation by sweeping it under the rug than making strides in prevention.