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What we know about the data on college sexual assaults

The rise in reported sexual assaults on campus may be attributable to more awareness -- and, importantly, better procedures.

College rankings are a pernicious business—particularly so if you’re looking at sexual assault statistics.

Thanks to the 1990 Clery Act, colleges are required to report data on campus crime every year, including the number of incidents (or attempted incidents) of rape or sexual battery. But it’s pretty obvious that this number depends not only on the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, but also how diligently the college handles allegations of rape. As Nick Anderson reported recently, there are pending investigations at 89 colleges over how these schools dealt with reports of sexual violence.

A quick glance at the colleges with the most per-capita reports of sexual assault shows that they tend to be small, liberal arts colleges. (We’ve averaged the data for 2011 and 2012 to get a smoother picture.) It’s possible that Gallaudet, Grinnell, and Reed are the most sexually violent campuses in the nation, but it’s more plausible that these campuses have cultivated an environment where survivors feel more comfortable speaking out.

For Gallaudet, a college for the deaf and hard of hearing, the answer might simply be that campus officials speak sign language. As one Gallaudet offical told Emily Shire at The Daily Beast: “Our students are more likely to go somewhere on campus and report [assault] than go to a hospital because they have direct access to someone who speaks American Sign Language.”

At Reed, a liberal arts college in Oregon, students loudly challenged administrators to improve how the school responds to cases of sexual assault. Their actions seem to have made a difference: The college reported many more sexual assaults in 2011 and 2012.

A spike in the numbers, then, might be a reason to be cautiously optimistic—at least about the awareness of sexual assault. It depends on what you think is more likely: that, in the span of a couple years, the rate of sexual violence shot up? Or that more survivors decided to step forward?

Using federal data, we’ve identified the four-year colleges with over 1,000 students that have seen the biggest increases in reported sexual assaults in the five years between 2007 and 2012. One way to rank these schools is by the increase in the per-capita reporting rate.

Reed and Gallaudet again top this list, along with Hampshire, Grinnell, Amherst and Bates. Grinnell College, for instance, reported a combined total of four cases in 2007 and 2008; In 2011-2012, it reported 24. In July, Grinnell President Raynard S. Kington told Anderson, “If anything, this is evidence we are doing a better job, creating a supportive environment, where more people feel more comfortable reporting.”

Another way to rank schools is by the sheer increase in the number of reported sexual assaults. Penn State saw the biggest spike in reports. It had a total of 17 cases in 2007 and 2008, and a total of 80 cases in 2011 and 2012. The child molestation scandal involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky drew attention to the issue of sexual assault, and the university told CNN that it had recently trained 5,000 people on reporting standards. A significant number of cases reported in 2012 actually occurred in the past, the university said.

No college is perfect, and many of the institutions only improved after intense student activism. And many still have problems following through on these reports. At Reed College, for instance, one of the student complaints was that rape allegations were not being properly investigated. At Columbia University, Emma Sulkowicz created her mattress-hauling piece of protest art to address the same issue on her campus.

But the first step toward having justice for survivors of sexual assaults is to make sure that their voices are heard. In this, some colleges are much more accomplished than others.