Parents should not trust data on sexual assaults at colleges because a low number of reports doesn’t necessarily mean that violations aren’t occurring, advocates for victims of sexual assault warned Monday.
Schools that report no sexual assaults should actually be a “red flag” to parents, since that may indicate a lack of resources or an unwillingness for victims to come forward, rather than a lack of crimes, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who hosted the advocates and said she wants to write legislation to try to address the information gap.
The problem echoes issues faced by the military, which Ms. McCaskill tackled in legislation that passed the Senate earlier this year, where low reporting numbers have consistently been released despite anonymous surveys or other measures that show a more widespread problem of unwanted sexual contact.
Laura Dunn, a survivor of campus sexual assault and executive director of SurvJustice, which provides support for victims of sexual abuse, said one way to get more realistic numbers than those required by current federal law would be to require students to take an anonymous, confidential survey disclosing if they have been sexually assaulted.
“I’m fairly sure if they can make you return your library books before they give you your diploma, they can make you fill out a survey,” she said.
The Clery Act, which governs how colleges handle sexual assaults on campus, requires postsecondary schools that receive federal financial aid to collect crime statistics, publish an annual report and submit the information to the Department of Education. But Ms. Dunn said parents could compare the survey numbers to the reported crime numbers to get a more accurate picture of how well schools are doing at detecting and reporting instances of assault and abuse.
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Putting in place mandatory climate surveys is just one thing being considered for comprehensive legislation from Ms. McCaskill and Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, which Ms. McCaskill calls a “work in progress.”
The legislation will incorporate suggestions from Monday’s discussion to improve sexual assault prevention and response on college campuses. Ms. McCaskill said she expects it to be finished sometime after the third and final roundtable discussion, which is scheduled for mid-June.
“We’re working on drafting legislation,” Ms. McCaskill said. “We want to see if we can simplify, clarify, augment [and] support.”
In the meantime, however, parents can get a more accurate picture of how a school handles sexual assaults by looking at the programs available for prevention and response, not the raw data, said Holly Rider-Milkovich, the director of the sexual assault prevention and awareness center at the University of Michigan. How many resources are available may suggest whether a school takes reports and proactive prevention very seriously, she said.
Once better data are available, lawmakers said there will still be work needed to raise awareness that the information is available. Many don’t even know they can request the Clery Act data, which is meant for parents, students and employees to evaluate the safety of the campus before attending or working at the school, Ms. McCaskill said.
“The problem is now I don’t think anybody even knows the data is there,” she said. “Getting past the first problem, that [the numbers are] not reliable, the second problem to me is that it’s not out there where families know it even exists, that it’s something they could ask for to find out about the campus.”