Penn State University tallied the nation’s highest number of reports of forcible sex offenses on campus in 2012 — 56 — a total that university officials attribute in part to the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor recorded the second-highest total, 34, followed by Harvard University (31), Indiana University-Bloomington (27), Stanford University (26) and Emory University (26), according to a Washington Post analysis of federal campus crime data.
The statistics offer a window into the rising number of students and employees at universities who are stepping forward to report sexual misconduct — and how much schools are now encouraging them to do so, college officials say.
Penn State’s total was up from four reported incidents in 2010 on its University Park campus and 24 in 2011. University officials say the reporting spike in 2012, the latest year for which data is available, includes numerous crimes from prior years attributable to Sandusky, a convicted sex abuser and former assistant football coach.
“If the numbers provide a reason to bring these vastly under-reported crimes into the open where we can share best practices and possible solutions, then we accept the additional scrutiny,” Penn State spokeswoman Lisa M. Powers said Tuesday. “We have no greater priority than the safety of our students, faculty and staff, and we should be talking consistently about this issue and about how we can improve the campus climate.”
Sex assault, a longtime problem on college campuses, has become a national issue. President Obama named a White House task force to develop proposals to prevent sex assault, and Congress is considering legislation. Dozens of colleges and universities, including Catholic University in the nation’s capital, are under federal investigation for possible violations of anti-discrimination law in their handling of sexual violence reports.
The Post analysis found that 55 percent of about 1,570 colleges and universities with 1,000 or more students received at least one report of a forcible sex offense on campus in 2012. Such sex offenses include forcible rape, forcible sodomy, forcible fondling and sexual assault with an object. Colleges report the data to the Education Department under the Clery Act.
Overall, there were more than 3,900 reports of forcible sex offenses on college campuses nationwide in 2012, up 50 percent over three years. The numbers should be read with caution because they reflect the total of alleged incidents. That could include offenses related to cases that went to criminal trial, such as those in the Sandusky scandal, but a large number of reported incidents result in no prosecutions or convictions.
Some of the nation’s most prominent colleges and universities top the list.
“We firmly believe that more robust reporting of sexual assaults by victims is an important component of our efforts to prevent these crimes and to ensure that those affected get the support that they need,” Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal said.
Several prestigious liberal arts colleges had some of the highest rates of reported offenses per thousand students. Among them were Grinnell (more than 10), Reed (more than nine), Amherst (more than nine), Hampshire (more than eight) and Swarthmore (more than seven).
Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington had the highest rate of reporting forcible sex offenses: more than 11 per thousand students in 2012.
Gallaudet, which specializes in education of the deaf, said it has taken many measures to prevent sex assault and facilitate reporting.
“We believe the reason why our numbers measure higher than other universities, both in terms of raw data as well as per capita, is due to the ability of students to have direct access in terms of communication and language with on-campus personnel without requiring the need for an interpreter,” said Dwight Benedict, Gallaudet’s dean of student affairs and academic support.
Grinnell President Raynard S. Kington said reports on campus shot up after the small college in Iowa launched a campaign to educate students about the importance of reporting. For instance, a student might report forcible fondling if unwanted groping occurs on a dance floor.
“Our students have played a huge role in changing the culture,” Kington said. “If anything, this is evidence we are doing a better job, creating a supportive environment, where more people feel more comfortable reporting.”
Kington added, “We know there’s a chance our numbers will be misinterpreted.” But he said the benefits of a pro-reporting campus culture outweigh any potential risk to the college’s public image.
Though the number of reports is sometimes higher at large universities, the reporting rate is generally lower. With large numbers of graduate students who live off campus, universities are often difficult to compare to liberal arts colleges dominated by undergraduates who live in dormitories.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is studying campus sex assault issues, said she is more concerned about schools with no reported offenses than those with many. She said she wonders whether schools with zero reports are doing enough to encourage students to step forward.
“We’ve got to explain to the public that they should not hold a university responsible for some failure if the number of sexual assault reports go up,” she said.
Among many large schools with no reports of forcible sex offenses on campus in 2012 was the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, with 18,516 students.
“We strive to be proactive and progressive in our approach to addressing the issue of sexual assault,” UNC-Greensboro spokesman Paul E. Mason said. “We have a number of education programs for students and parents, but we know that it is improbable that there would be no actual incidents as reported in 2012. With that in mind, over the past several years we have made an increased effort to educate our students on the importance of reporting sexual assaults.”
In 2013, Mason said, the campus police received eight reports of sex assault.
The Post’s analysis found that the University of Virginia had 11 reports of forcible sex offenses on campus in 2012. The University of Maryland at College Park had nine. George Washington University, the largest university in the District, had 10.