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Vestal: Strain at statistics in WSU rape reports

Fri., Sept. 2, 2011, midnight

Washington State University is in “very serious” trouble with the feds.

The university failed to properly classify two reports of rape on campus in 2007, and the federal government is fining the school $82,500 – because the feds have a commitment to gathering “accurate and complete” information about campus crime and relaying it to parents and students so they will be able to make good decisions about their personal safety.

So, just to be clear: When WSU said in 2007 that only four forcible sexual assaults were reported, that was incorrect.

It should have been six.

That’s right. Six, not four, was the complete and accurate number of forcible sex offenses at WSU in 2007. And the government is going to really hammer WSU for getting that wrong, unless the school wins its appeal.

It’s reassuring, is it not, to know that among nearly 25,000 young men and women enrolled at WSU in 2007, a mere six rapes occurred? When the statistical averages for that year, according to federal crime fighters, would suggest something like 50 would be typical? And when, knowing all we know about the unreported nature of this crime, that a more realistic, off-the-record figure would be much higher still?

But, hey: four is completely unacceptable, and six is completely acceptable. Good work, Department of Education.

It would be hard to imagine a bigger pantomime. WSU’s offenses are not unimportant; in fact, they might be more serious than you can tell from the DOE’s fining letter. But this matter of accounting falls short of the “very serious” label the feds have slapped on the school, if only because there is virtually no gain in plausibility or usefulness between four and six.

In reading the Department of Education’s letter announcing the fines, it seems possible that WSU’s police department dropped the ball on one serious report – failing to follow up on a case where a woman said she suspected she’d been given sleeping pills by her husband and raped by a friend of his. An initial report did not include the rape allegation, and was classified as a domestic dispute; university police failed to reclassify it when the woman came forward with additional information later. WSU “contends” that police tried unsuccessfully to follow up with the victim, the DOE says.

But the feds aren’t punishing WSU for not running the case to the ground; they’re punishing WSU for failing to put one more check mark in the rape column after the fact, because institutions must “ensure the accuracy of the data.”

In the other case, a rape that was investigated was classified as “unfounded” by a records clerk – when such a determination needs to be made by someone higher on the food chain.

So, yeah, these were mistakes. WSU should have done a better job in both cases, and it should absolutely classify its crime reports properly. But there is something deeply dishonest in the pretense that either figure – four or six – is anything at all like an “accurate and complete” accounting.

The general thrust of the Clery Act is admirable – it forces colleges to tell the public about crimes that occur on campus, to provide annual statistics, maintain a public log, and take various other steps. But when it comes to sexual assault, these statistics are less than useless. In 2007, the year that WSU made its mistakes, the University of Idaho reported four forcible sex offenses. Eastern Washington University reported one. The UW reported just two in 2008, and not a single one in 2009.

In fact, to look at the Clery Act statistics, you’d think we’ve pretty much got this rape thing under control. According to the Center for Public Integrity, 77 percent of two- and four-year institutions reported not a single sex crime in 2007.

Not one.

All this, despite the fact that the national incidence of rape reports for women ages 20-24 was greater than 2 per 1,000 people in 2007, according to the federal Department of Justice.

A DOJ study in 2000 estimated that a college campus of 10,000 could plausibly have 350 forcible sex offenses in a year. A woman who attends college for five years, the study estimated, would have between a 20 percent and a 25 percent chance of a man at least trying to force her into sex. That’s an old study, but I think we might not have erased the problem just yet.

The study also estimated that just 5 percent of college rapes are reported – far fewer than the already low estimate for all populations of 40 percent.

Christine Wall, the director of Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse, agreed that the statistics about campus rape do not tell an accurate picture. But she’s not ready to dismiss the Clery Act, and the importance of enforcing it, altogether.

“I think it, by definition, forces colleges to be accountable in some way,” she said. “So maybe the value of the Clery Act is not the numbers it publishes, but in the insistence that universities need to do something about college-age rape.”

In the meantime, it’s important to keep in mind that WSU has “corrected” its figures for 2007. But don’t mistake that for thinking you can take them seriously.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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