The Sexist

Do College Sexual Assault Trend Pieces Stigmatize Assaulting, Or Reporting?

The Examiner reports that "dating violence is on the rise" at D.C.-area colleges. The evidence? More students are reporting instances of sexual assault, domestic violence, and harassment to police and school administrators [Thanks to WAWF for the tip]. But wait: Why is an increase in reporting being framed as a no good very bad thing? Sounds like something fishy is going on!

According to the Examiner:

Five out of eight Washington-area universities reported an increase in sexual offenses to the Department of Education from 2007 to 2008. The University of Virginia and Virginia Tech as well as Georgetown, George Mason and Catholic universities reported an increase in sexual assaults—which include rape and any other sexual act against someone's will.

This is how the Examiner crunches that data: "Women are increasingly being victimized on college campuses across the Washington region, with romantic relationships behind most of the assaults, according to the FBI and statistics from local universities."

Nope. It's certainly possible that more women were assaulted at local colleges in 2008 than were in 2007. But equally possible is that more women reported their assaults to authorities. So based on the data, we're really not in a position to either panic or pat ourselves on the back here.

But let's take a closer look at the data. Of the eight schools the Examiner included in its data, five saw their sexual assault report numbers fluctuate by only one assault. At Virginia Tech, reports increased from 3 to 4 assaults. At George Mason, they dropped from 12 to 11. At Catholic, they increased from 1 to 2. At American University, they dropped from 2 to 1. At the George Washington University, they increased from 5 to 6.

Of the three remaining schools, The University of Virginia saw the highest jump in reports—5 to 16. Georgetown saw reports increase from 8 to 10. And at the University of Maryland, reports dropped from 21 to 17.

What do these numbers mean? Absolutely nothing, probably. Unfortunately, the Examiner's go-to campus expert, University of Maryland administrator John Zacker, doesn't help to clarify matters:

He said sexual assault on campus is much higher than data reveals—the number of assault cases ranged from three to 16 in area colleges during 2008, but only 5 percent of victims file a report.

Zacker said students are building higher thresholds for obsessive behavior and waiting longer to report incidents—if they report them at all.

"There are some [victims] that incur this behavior for months without reporting it," he said. He said the invasive nature of campus investigations also deters victims from reporting—especially considering only 10 percent to 25 percent of students found guilty of sexual assault face expulsion, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit research center.

Zackler knows that there are huge barriers to reporting sexual assault on college campuses, so it's disingenuous for him—and the Examiner—to claim that a small fluctuation in the already tiny number of sexual assaults reported on campus has any sort of statistical significance. But even more bizarre is the fact that Zackler is actually arguing against the data's (likely insignificant) trend. If more students reported assaults in 2008 than 2007, where is the evidence that students today are "building higher thresholds for obsessive behavior and waiting longer to report incidents—if they report them at all"? Zackler may have personal knowledge that some victims on his campus have high thresholds for obsessive behavior and wait a long time to report their incidents, if they report them at all. But situating Zackler's observations as a frightening trend without presenting any comparative data is extremely misleading.

  • Conrad Davis

    You're 100% right Amanda.

    Does hiring more police decrease the number of crimes committed? Probably. But department statistics would likely show an increase in reported crimes, arrests, and convictions. "More police lead to more crimes!" The anarchists cry.

  • kza

    They probably sell more papers if they scare people.

  • Sarah

    A while back I wrote about an article called "Campus Crime Stats Don’t Tell the Whole Story," and though the link to the piece no longer works, it ALSO quotes Daniel Carter of Security on Campus making a very important point that you also make, Amanda, and that I wish the Examiner had asked him about (or perhaps they did and chose not to publish it):

    "While parents may be encouraged by low numbers of reported crimes or disciplinary action for alcohol and drug violations, security experts say that is not always a good sign. Higher numbers reported, especially for sexual offenses, generally indicate a more open climate on campus that is supportive of students reporting crimes.

    'Generally, institutions with a greater support system are those schools with higher numbers, sometimes dramatically higher numbers,' said S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security on Campus, a college watchdog group based in King of Prussia, Pa."

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