Reports of forcible sex offenses at the flagship public universities of Virginia and Maryland doubled last year, according to new federal data.
The increases, echoed at many colleges and universities, reflect growing awareness of sexual assault on campuses across the country.
School officials and others familiar with the issue say colleges with rising totals of sex-offense reports should not be perceived as being more dangerous than before. Rather, they say, the numbers mean that more students are stepping forward to get help. Also, schools are documenting the problem more thoroughly than ever, educating students about preventing sexual assault and developing procedures to handle complaints.
“When these systems are put in place, you’ll see more people coming forward and reporting because they’re confident in the response from the institution,” said Abigail Boyer, an assistant executive director at the nonprofit Clery Center for Security on Campus, based in Pennsylvania.
Above all, safety advocates and school officials want to reduce the number of assaults. But often, a key first step is encouraging students to report them. “It’s really critical that people are even having the conversation,” Boyer said.
Forcible sex offenses include rape, sodomy, fondling and sexual assault with an object. Campus crime data collected annually under the federal Clery Act include alleged incidents that lead to prosecution as well as those that do not. Often, students who report an assault press for an internal misconduct investigation rather than a criminal case.
President Obama and lawmakers have sought this year to focus attention on campus sex assault. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating more than 80 colleges and universities for their handling of sexual-violence complaints.
The Clery Act data, though imperfect, provide a window on the prevalence of the issue. As of Tuesday, the federal database showed updated crime statistics for 2013 at 42 state flagship universities. At four, there was no annual change in the number of reports of forcible sex offenses on campus.
At sixteen campuses, the total fell. The largest decline was at Pennsylvania State University. There were 17 such reports on Penn State’s main campus in 2013, down from 56 the year before. But the 2012 figure was unusually high, Penn State officials said, in part because of the emergence of reports related to the sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
At 22 of the flagships, the reporting of forcible sex offenses increased. U-Va. had one of the largest increases.
“In the past year, the university has adopted several new initiatives and policies aimed at fostering a culture of reporting and providing an environment that is as safe as possible for our students and the entire university community,” U-Va. spokesman Anthony P. de Bruyn said. “Therefore it is not unexpected that we would see an increase in the number of reports as members of the community become more aware and more sensitive to issues related to sexual misconduct.”
Catherine A. Carroll, director of U-Md.’s Office of Sexual Misconduct and Relationship Violence, linked the incident reports to expanded outreach on gender violence. “Best guess is that the increase is a result of these efforts locally and nationally,” she said.
Among other flagships with significant increases in reports of forcible sex offenses on campus were the University of Wisconsin at Madison (29, up from 15); University of Maine (19, up from 5); University of Oklahoma (17, up from 6); University of Wyoming (15, up from 5); University of Kansas (18, up from 8); and University of Connecticut (23, up from 13).
Increases were not confined to public schools. Federal data showed 89 reports of forcible sex offenses in 2013 at private Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, up from 12. A college spokesman, Mark Anskis, said 34 of those reports related to incidents that occurred in prior years. In 33, he said, there was not a known victim or survivor, and 16 were made anonymously. But Anskis said the college views the developments as positive.
“This heightened reporting and investigation is critical to our addressing these issues effectively on campus, which is our highest goal,” Anskis said. “We are proud of our students’ courage. We believe this means that things that were previously left unreported can now come to light and be dealt with in the very best ways possible. Our ultimate goal is to prevent and eliminate all sexual assault from campus.”