The conversation about sexual assault on college campuses has grown widespread in the aftermath of the Brock Turner rape case at Stanford University where the survivor’s powerful letter captured the nation’s attention. Since the case’s outcome, school administrators and safety officials are under greater pressure to inform the public about how they intend to keep students safe during the school year.
While many are aware that sexual assaults happen frequently on college campuses, many are also not aware of how widespread or common it is. U.S. college campuses grossly underreport the incidence of sexual assault that happens on school grounds. A main reason for the unreported assault is that schools fear that full reporting of these incidents is a negative reflection of their campuses, which would cause their application numbers to fall.An analysis by the American Association of University Women also revealed additional factors contributing to underreporting, including:
Regardless of the reasons behind underreporting, colleges and universities are legally obligated to accurately monitor and report sexual assaults occurring on campus.
University officials often face the difficult task of determining fault within sexual assault reports and also applying corrective measures in the circumstances. For instance, at the University of Southern California (USC), George Tyndall, a school gynecologist was found to have sexually assaulted hundreds of female student-athletes over the course of several years. His conduct included performing unnecessary medical exams, inappropriate touching, photographing sensitive body parts, and making inappropriate comments. This behavior left many of the student victims with long-term trauma and psychological damage. The case resulted in an $851.6 million settlement distributed to the victims.
A federal investigation revealed that the school mishandled reports about Dr. Tyndall’s behavior, which may have allowed the abuse to continue. The investigation further revealed that USC’s top brass turned a blind eye to Tyndall’s behavior — many officials knew about allegations against Tyndall but failed to disclose incidents to federal agents.
The Tyndall case illustrates two main points about sexual assaults on campus: First, sexual assaults can happen in various settings besides peer-to-peer interactions and can include systemic, ongoing abuse from faculty or school staff. Secondly, underreporting and inaction on the part of school officials creates further problems and leaves the doors open for continued abuses to occur.
Whether the assault is happening on campus through organized activities, or in social settings such as parties, the effects are real.
As a result of the Dr. George Tyndall case, USC reached an agreement with the Education Department to improve its record-keeping and recording system for sexual assault complaints involving campus employees.
Even with changes like these, and with increased pressure placed on universities to protect students from sexual assault on college campuses over the past 25 years, there hasn’t been a decline in sexual assault cases on campus. A survey found that the rate of nonconsensual sexual contact by force or inability to consent increased by 3% from 2015 to 2019 for undergraduate women.
On the one hand, it is commonly known that sexual assaults and sexual violence are pervasive in college settings. Statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) show that 13% of all graduate and undergraduate students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. For undergraduate females, this rate jumps to 26%.
However, an AAUW study revealed that 89 percent of 11,000 US schools reported a 0% rate of rapes on their campus. Furthermore, 77% of higher learning campuses reported zero incidents of sexual assault, including fondling, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking — a shocking statistic that speaks to the inadequacy of reporting structures rather than the frequency of the events. Experts agree that these improbable statistics are signs that schools are actually unwilling to track or divulge the prevalence of sexual assault on their campus.
The problem of underreporting the rate of sexual assault on college campuses begins with the university culture as a whole. Many sexual assault victims do not come forward and report the crime committed against them because they do not expect it to do any good. They may not have clear memories of the incident, they may fear shaming or culpability, or perhaps they simply do not expect to be believed.
On top of this, universities may not have an accessible support system for victims. Many students arrive at university campuses alone, far removed from their daily support systems, and may not know who to confide in after they have been assaulted.
Even worse, faculty, teachers, and administrators may be complicit in keeping sexual assault unreported. As the George Tyndall case illustrates, conditions that allow abusive behavior (such as employees failing to file reports) can exist for years and years. As a result, the vast majority of sexual predators on college campuses are never brought to justice, and the voices of victims remain silent.
A public-awareness campaign known as “It’s On Us” is spreading among universities. The campaign provides guidance for both men and women to intervene before campus sexual assault takes place. The campaign’s mission is to combat campus sexual assault by engaging all students, including young men, and launching the largest student organizing program of its kind in grassroots awareness and prevention education programs.
This stance, and public awareness for situations such as the Brock Turner case, have pushed hundreds of schools to reform their reporting and discipline procedures to make it easier for sexual assault victims to come forward.
It is expected that in the coming years, reports of campus sexual assault and misconduct will rise. Despite this disturbing realization, a rise in assault reports would actually be a positive indication that colleges are finally beginning to serve the rights of victims.
Colleges owe students and parents the assurance that, if the unthinkable happens, the school will uphold their rights to ensure that a safe environment is restored and those who are guilty of sexual assault are held accountable.
In addition to improving campus security and making reporting easier for victims, colleges must work to improve their overall culture. Educating students about the supremacy of consent in sexual situations is key to preventing acts of violence, and victims of sexual assault must be shielded from subsequent harassment and trauma.
Parents should be encouraged to prepare their college students to protect and advocate for their own sexual safety, as well as to intervene on behalf of others. By offering their voices in support of each other’s safety, college students can create a future where nobody has to be a victim.As mentioned, underreporting is a serious problem that may skew a student or applicant’s perception of a school. Perhaps what is more valuable is to consider the school’s policies on handling and processing sexual assault incidents, especially those that involve faculty or staff.
If you or your child is starting a new college term, make sure they are prepared with the following protective measures for avoiding and preventing sexual assault on campus:
Campus sexual assault is a serious problem that can happen in a number of different settings. If you or someone you know has experienced an assault or abuse, no matter what the circumstances, it is never the victim’s fault.
There is hope and healing ahead, but you may need help getting there. The following are a few steps that can provide you with the help and support needed following an assault:
The days following a sexual assault, especially one that happens in a campus setting, can be difficult and confusing, but understand that you are never alone and that help is available for you. As discussed, underreporting of incidents at and by colleges is a serious issue. We understand how challenging it can be to reach out to someone or file a report. For Jessica Pride and the team at The Pride Law Firm, creating safe and healthy environments at educational institutions is one of our top priorities. The first steps can be hard, but our team is here to ensure confidential, compassionate legal services to make the process more manageable.
If you have been a victim of sexual assault, child sexual abuse, or workplace sexual harassment we are here to answer your questions, provide a free and confidential case evaluation, and connect you to resources. By contacting us, you consent to receive marketing communications and other advertisements from The Pride Law Firm.
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