The month of May is the deadline for many colleges’ tuition payment and the time when students must decide where to go. As a former sex-crimes prosecutor, I’m happy to see that many young women making this decision are checking the statistics about reported incidents of sexual assault on campus. But I’m afraid the statistics are misleading – sometimes deliberately so.
A college that reports zero sexual assaults is not safer than a college that does have reported incidents. Sexual assaults are happening at every campus. The college that reports zero sexual assaults is oblivious–or lying.
Here are the stark statistics. Ladies, you have a 20% chance of being sexually assaulted while you’re at school. One in five girls who go to college will be sexually assaulted before she leaves. The same is true for five percent of the boys. And yet for decades, many colleges have reported 0 rapes on their campus every year.
Mathematically, it doesn’t add up. In fact, many colleges have been sweeping these crimes under the rug for years to protect their reputations. No parent wants their daughter to go to Rape U. Applications go down when a college rape becomes public.
So, colleges have used various tactics to keep their assaults quiet. Some have discouraged reporting. They make the process difficult, hard to understand, drawn-out, clunky. Many survivors drop out because it’s so long and painful. If they make it through, many attackers have been found “not responsible,” the college equivalent of “not guilty.” Even in those cases where a rapist was ultimately found “responsible,” that number may not have made it into the annual report the college was supposed to make to the federal government.
Of course there are rules against these tactics. Title IX is a federal gender equity law that prohibits discrimination or a hostile environment based on gender. Courts have held that Title IX requires colleges to address sexual harassment among students — and the most extreme form of harassment is sexual assault. Similarly, the Clery Act is a federal law which requires universities to report the number of crimes on their campus every year.
But many colleges are under investigation for failing to comply with these laws. Currently, over 150 colleges are being investigated by the Department of Justice and/or Department or Education for violating Title IX and/or the Clery Act. These institutions range from some of the top universities in the country: Princeton, Harvard, University of Michigan, and University of Virginia, to giant state schools like Ohio State University, Indiana University, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and Colorado University. The Chronicle of Higher Education keeps a running list here.
So what’s a student to do? How can you figure out the safety of the campuses you’re considering?
Of course, you should check the numbers the school itself publicizes. But be skeptical, understanding that zero rapes is almost impossible. Keep looking, keep asking questions. Obviously Google “your university + sexual assault” and read what comes up. Check out The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which has a state-by-state enforcement map showing investigations across America. The Department of Education has an online Campus Safety Tool – you can see how many reports they’ve received, campus by campus. The American Association of University Women’s “Ending Campus Sexual Assault Tool Kit” has great info, and more resources are on the site.
Finally, talk to girls on the campus – do they know anyone who’s been assaulted? How was she treated? Ask your student tour guide if they know what to do if they’ve been sexually assaulted.
Don’t be afraid to start this conversation. It’s so important to talk about this. Young women who are insisting on talking about this – like the authors of “We Believe You,” the extraordinary book by college sex assault survivors chronicling their experiences – are changing the national conversation, insisting that the world take this seriously. I’m trying to do the same with my latest novel, “The Last Good Girl.”
College can and should be a wonderful experience. There are steps you can take to reduce the chance of this terrible crime happening to you. But it also helps to go to a school that takes this problem seriously and is addressing it. That means a school that recognizes the problem exists.
Even at the best of schools.