LAWRENCE — Universities across the country are likely underreporting on-campus sexual assault, new research by a University of Kansas researcher shows. While there is not one clear reason why the crimes might be underreported, data show that the numbers of sexual assaults were low, increased during periods of audit, only to return to the lower numbers after the audits were over. To address the problem, increased audits and fines may be necessary, said Corey Rayburn Yung, professor of law.
Yung analyzed crime-reporting data from 269 universities in the United States and found that sexual assault is likely an estimated 44 percent higher than reported numbers. More than 11,000 schools in the United States are required to submit campus crime information to the Department of Education by the Clery Act. He limited the study to schools with 10,000 or more students to get consistent, comparable statistical data. The article was published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.
Since 2001, only 31 of the 269 institutions with 10,000 or more students were audited in regard to their crime numbers. Many schools, especially smaller institutions, often reported zero sexual assaults.
“It just seemed like the norm was to assume there is nothing wrong,” Yung said. “I looked at those 31 to see how their numbers changed before the audit, during the audit and after the audit. Based on their interactions with auditors there seems to be a systematic undercounting.”
The numbers showed that during the 31 investigations, reported sexual assaults rose nearly 44 percent. However, after the investigations the rates dropped back to a level statistically indistinguishable from the rates before the audit. Yung also examined the reported rates of aggravated assault, robbery and burglary. No statistical variations appeared for those crimes during the investigations. While they are different crimes, the numbers paint a troubling picture, he says.
“Each of those crimes has a very different dynamic,” Yung said. “I don’t mean to say they are a direct comparison. But the only one that shows this fluctuation during the audit is sexual assault.”
There are many potential reasons campuses could underreport sexual assaults, he said. While all schools need to attract new students, none want to portray themselves as a dangerous place with high crime numbers. Campus police, like municipal police departments, can often be under pressure to show they are reducing crime as well. Sexual assault, especially on a campus setting, often involves an acquaintance and questions of consent or incapacitation. Given that there are often two competing stories, sexual assault can often be more easily dismissed than other crimes due to “lack of evidence” or contradictory statements, Yung said.
Further complicating matters, campuses are required to adjudicate claims of sexual assault within 60 days; however evidence including DNA and drug and alcohol analysis are often not available within such a short timeframe. The public nature of the Clery Act crime statistics — data must be provided to both the Department of Education and students — could also be an incentive to undercount.
“I think it varies substantially from campus to campus why sexual assaults may be underreported, but the evidence shows that undercounting is taking place,” Yung said.
Two clear steps can be taken immediately to help address the problem of underreporting. First, Yung suggests that more audits take place. Currently, the Department of Education can launch an investigation either at random or if it is triggered by a specific on-campus event or notable problem. Since 2001, only 54 such audits have been conducted. Second, stronger fines should be levied against universities that are shown to have knowingly underreported crimes. Currently the cap for such fines is $35,000. Data shows that even institutions that were fined for underreporting returned to rates of reporting sexual assault before an audit. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act, currently before Congress, would increase maximum penalties from $35,000 to $150,000.
Whatever the reason for undercounting sexual assault, the biggest problem is that it can allow serial rapists to prey on more victims if they are not prosecuted for previous offenses. A 2010 study by Kimberly A. Lonsway of End Violence Against Women International showed that more than 90 percent of rapists are serial rapists, Yung said. Legislation, combined with more scrutiny and treating sexual assault as a public safety crisis could help combat the problem of underreporting as well as preventing future crimes and serving justice for victims.
“I think increased auditing and more severe punishments for those shown to be undercounting are certainly the first steps,” Yung said. “As it is, schools could undercount for decades. There’s almost no deterrent. It would be good to have an incentive for schools to count these crimes accurately.”