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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Campus assaults not fully reported

Fragmented system obscures problem

Carol Smith And Lee Van Der Voo InvestigateWest

Second of two parts

One reason the frequency of sexual assault on campuses continues to be high is that schools are in denial about the scope of the problem, advocates and victims say.

“Universities tend to have fragmented reporting channels rather than a centralized system where a student knows to come to,” said Sarah Dunne, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

Women report incidents of assault in various ways. They may call the police, tell a friend or a faculty member, go to the sexual assault counseling center, or tell their doctor.

A federal law known as the Clery Act requires schools to report sexual assault statistics. But a data analysis by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity shows that there is a wide discrepancy between the official numbers universities report and the numbers seen by sexual assault counseling centers or other places victims seek help. That’s partly because a woman seeking aid through a campus counseling center may not want to report the incident.

“We help them make a decision about what they want to do,” said Melissa Tumas, director of the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Information Center at the University of Washington, who sees about 160 cases a year, including stalking and domestic violence cases. About 40 percent of her caseload involves sexual assaults.

But unless the victim wants to press forward with either a police report or a university hearing, she will not disclose the incident.

“I’m a confidential resource for them,” Tumas said.

Certain professionals, such as counselors, are not required to report assaults if the student doesn’t want them to.

But others are required to report incidents as part of Title IX rules.

Marilyn Derby, director of residence life at Willamette University in Oregon, said she feels obligated to let students know that telling her about an assault could launch a formal investigation.

When a student starts a conversation about sexual assault, Derby said, “I usually stop them pretty quick into the conversation and tell them that Title IX requires us to investigate reports.”

Derby said she doesn’t want students launching a campus investigation unless they’re ready to. So she discourages them from talking about specifics unless an investigation is what they want. Derby said she sometimes feels conflicted about her inability to simply provide support.

“We’ll do what we are required to do according to the law but that doesn’t mean we always have clarity in our own feelings,” she said. Another reason universities don’t have a good handle on how frequently sexual assaults take place is that there is often little or no cross-checking between the police and counseling centers.

Because of that, officials may not realize when they have serial attacks.

When there’s no centralized reporting, schools are unable to track or see patterns that would lead them to predators, said the ACLU’s Dunne. “They can’t track whether someone who assaults then moves across campus and assaults again.”

This fragmented approach to reporting leads to widely varying estimates of the frequency of rape on campus.

Seattle attorney Rebecca Roe said when she tried a case involving the UW a few years ago, the school had reported four assaults to the federal government, but the head of the student counseling service had handled 25 reports during that same time frame.

In 2008, the UW, which enrolls about 40,000 students on its main campus, received two reports of on-campus sexual assaults and one off-campus, said vice president for student life Eric Godfrey. Seattle police reported seven in the area around the UW campus, he said.

The same year, Gonzaga University, which enrolls about 6,300 students, reported one incident defined as rape and two incidents defined as “other offenses,” such as sexual assault, according to Jeff Hart, assistant dean of student life.

“The number of reports received by the SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) group will typically be greater than these statistics because SART receives reports on a broader range of alleged offense and not all reported incident fit the Clery criteria,” Hart said in an e-mailed response to InvestigateWest.

Only one or two incidents a year proceed to a school disciplinary hearing, he said.

Washington State University reported five incidents on- and off-campus in 2008, according to a Clery Act database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education. Eastern Washington University had one incident for the same year.

Schools may be adhering to the letter of the law by reporting only those sexual assault allegations that surface through police or official student conduct review panels, but by not keeping some count of confidential reports, the effect is to minimize the true incidence on campus, advocates said.

There is a built-in disincentive for schools to acknowledge the frequency of campus rape.

Reporting of rape statistics is contrary to the need to present the campus as a safe, attractive place for potential students, said Adam Shipman, director of advocacy and education for the Sexual Assault and Family Trauma Response Center in Spokane, which does outreach and training at several area colleges, including Eastern Washington University, Washington State University and Gonzaga University.

That puts universities in a bind – they want to downplay statistics to continue to attract students, but they can’t address the scope of the problem without knowing how big it truly is.

“I can tell you, it’s significantly more than get reported,” said Shipman.