Numbers don’t tell full story of sexual violence on college campuses

  • Keynote speaker and panel moderator Joseph Storch (right) directs an audience question to the panel during the Nicholas J. Halias Safety Symposium at NHTI in Concord on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Keene State College Title IX Coordinator Jeffrey T. Maher (left) answers a question during the Nicholas J. Halias Safety Symposium at NHTI in Concord on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017. Keene State Vice President of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Kemal Atkins sits to the right. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Keynote speaker and panel moderator Joseph Storch speaks during the Nicholas J. Halias Safety Symposium at NHTI in Concord on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Keene State College Title IX Coordinator Jeffrey T. Maher (left) answers a question during the Nicholas J. Halias Safety Symposium at NHTI in Concord on Friday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/11/2017 10:37:04 PM

Trauma specialist Linda Douglas told the law enforcement officers, lawmakers and college employees before her that how they respond to a disclosure of sexual assault can deeply affect a survivor’s healing process.

Making a survivor feel comfortable and not at fault is essential, especially when reporting is not the norm, she said at the 2nd Annual Halias Safety Symposium in Concord Friday.

The reality is that the majority of sexual assault survivors never report. However, national estimates show that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college.

The ones that do report can be seen on New Hampshire campuses in federally mandated crime statistics. At Dartmouth College in Hanover, 20 on and off campus rapes were reported in 2015, which equates to about one in 300 students. Similarly, at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, 40 rapes were reported in 2015 on and off campus, which is about one rape for every 400 students. The year before that, there were 48 reported rapes at Dartmouth and 23 at UNH.

New Hampshire college and university officials say determining the scope of sexual violence on their campuses is a complex undertaking that requires a fluid approach. While annual data collection on reporting is important, those numbers tell only a limited part of the story, they said.

Under the Clery Act, colleges and universities are required to disclose statistics on sexual assault, dating violence and other crimes. But officials say analysis of those numbers – and other data sets under federal mandatory reporting laws – can’t occur in isolation of broader discussions on response and prevention.

“One of the best things colleges are doing in recent years is putting together policies, programs and resources to encourage anyone who is victimized by violence to come forward and get resources,” said Joseph Storch, a legal expert on the Clery Act and Title IX who is associate counsel for New York’s public college system. “It’s helping a little bit, but it is still very much an underreported crime.”

The federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (Clery Act) requires that both private and public schools participating in federal student aid programs to disclose campus safety information, and it imposes certain requirements for handling emergency situations. The law is named in memory of Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered in her dormitory by a student she did not know.

Storch characterized data reported under the Clery Act as “problematic,” citing the decision of federal lawmakers to base reporting on geography. Because the act focuses mostly on the college’s central campus and adjacent property, it doesn’t accurately account for students who are victimized elsewhere, such as in off-campus housing not owned or leased by the intuition.

“Interpersonal violence occurs mostly in the home or somebody else’s home,” Storch said. “The data doesn’t line up with where our students actually live and where we know these crimes occur.”

Kathryn Kiefer, coordinator of the New Hampshire Violence Against Women Campus Consortium, agreed, noting Clery data is a bit of a double-edged sword because while it can be helpful, campus officials also face challenges in their attempts to draw conclusions from the numbers.

“If you see a big discrepancy between the number of reports and the rates done by a climate survey, I think that tells you whether students feel comfortable reporting or if they know how to report,” Kiefer said, referring to the anonymous surveys used by colleges and universities to gauge the attitudes and behaviors of students and staff.

Campus officials, legal experts and advocates said in interviews with the Monitor prior to and during the symposium that they’re looking for the highs and lows of the Clery data. For example, no reports of sexual violence at an institution in most categories over a couple of years would raise a red flag and call for deeper analysis, they said.

Conversely, institutions showing the greatest number of reports aren’t necessarily unsafe environments for students, but campuses where students feel comfortable and know the process for reporting, said Annie Clark, a sexual assault survivor and executive director of the national nonprofit organization End Rape On Campus.

“Higher numbers might actually indicate more trust in the system and more of a willingness to come forward,” she said during her keynote address.

In New Hampshire, the greatest number of rape reports in 2014 and 2015 were made by students at Dartmouth and UNH. Dartmouth has a student body of 6,350 while UNH enrolls 15,351 students.

Smaller public and private institutions, including Keene State College, Plymouth State University, Franklin Pierce University, and Colby-Sawyer College, had fewer reported rapes, with numbers varying between 1 and 11 during years 2014 and 2015.

At New Hampshire’s community and technical colleges, no reports were typical during the two-year period, but officials say that data, in part, speaks to the limitations of the Clery Act and its geographical focus. Students attending these colleges often live outside mandatory reporting areas, and because sexual violence occurs most often in the home, their experiences are unaccounted for under Clery.

However, they may still have interactions with a school’s Title IX coordinator, who can help provide a fuller picture of the scope of sexual violence on a particular campus.

Jeffrey Maher, Title IX coordinator for Keene State College, said in an interview it’s important for students to know their civil rights under Title IX. He said Title IX coordinators have an important role in helping survivors of sexual violence continue to be successful by removing barriers that may inhibit their educational pursuit after an assault.

Maher, a retired police officer who spent the majority of his career investigating crimes of sexual assault and interpersonal violence, said effectively responding to and preventing campus sexual assaults relies on a community-wide approach. He said Keene State has taken proactive steps to educate new students about consent, respect and their role as a bystander in preventing sexual assault. A play, called “No Zebras, No Excuses,” which is shown during freshman orientation, drives those messages home, he said.

Clark said during her keynote address Friday that it’s important for schools to develop campus-specific policies and also make a commitment to educating students about them. She said the most successful institutions operate not just in a landscape of “bare minimum compliance” with federal laws but in one of “commitment.”

Ultimately, the question students are going to ask is “Do I feel safe coming forward on this campus?”

The answer unequivocally should be yes, Clark said.

“More often than not, people just want to believed and heard.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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