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.
Sexual Assault on College Campuses
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:
- Individual student fears of reporting to school authorities or local law enforcement
- Procedural gaps in how educational institutions respond to and process incidents
- Reluctance by school officials to create or improve reporting programs
- A combination of various other factors
Regardless of the reasons behind underreporting, colleges and universities are legally obligated to accurately monitor and report sexual assaults occurring on campus.
The School’s Role in Preventing and Disclosing Sexual Assault 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.
College Sexual Assault Statistics
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 Problematic Effects of Underreporting
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.
Preventing Sexual Assault on College Campuses
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.
How to Prevent Sexual Assault on College Campuses
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:
- Understand that only yes means yes, even in the cases of committed relationships.
- Trust your intuition. If you have a bad feeling from an interaction you’ve been part of, or from an interaction you’ve observed a friend having, take preventive measures. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Stick with your friends, especially at night. Staying together is key to protecting your own safety and that of your friends.
- Know your alcohol limits. Over half of sexual assaults committed against college students involve alcohol.
- Never leave your drink alone, and avoid drinking from a communal alcohol source (like a punch bowl) or from a drink someone hands to you.
- If a person is too intoxicated or otherwise able to give knowledgeable consent, no sexual activity should take place.
- Create a safety plan. In the event that you are in a sexual assault situation have a plan in place to contact others for help or to extricate yourself from the situation.
- Be an “UpStander” – If you see a sexual assault occurring, stand up and intervene if safe to help the victim or notify authorities.
What to Do if You Have Been Sexually Assaulted 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:
- Go to a safe place: This is not the time to be alone, as you may need emotional support. If there is no one you can go to, call someone to talk to them, no matter how late it is. Call 911 or campus authorities if you are in immediate danger.
- Seek medical attention: Go to the hospital or campus clinic as soon as you can and receive treatment for injuries or infections. You can receive medical treatment and provide medical evidence without having to report to the police if you’re not ready. However, if you do choose to report or file charges, the evidence collected soon after an assault can make an investigation more effective.
- Report the assault to police and campus officials: Report what happened to the authorities, whether or not you plan to file charges. We understand that it may be difficult to reach out or speak to someone; however, reporting an assault does not immediately commit you to filing charges, but it does make it easier if you decide to file later. You can have someone go with you or be with you while you make the report. If the perpetrator was a campus employee or staff, it is important to report them, as others may have been affected.
- Consider whether you want to initiate legal action: You have the right to choose whether or not to file charges, and the decision is ultimately up to you. Initiating legal action can be a tough process, but in many cases is necessary to bring the perpetrator to justice and to get you what you need for your recovery. It’s also ok to reach out to an attorney for initial advice on how to proceed.
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. Reach out to us at (619) 516-8166 to receive the support and guidance you need. Together we can help ensure educational institutions are doing their part to prevent and manage incidents.