May 30, 2014

Safety in anonymity

Universities need to not only survey students but also release findings.

“Dartmouth has a rape problem: Find out more before you decide,” says the new ad campaign by feminist advocacy group UltraViolet. It has certainly gotten the attention of prospective students and their parents. But where will they go to “find out more”? It’s not easy to get the facts. College guides rate and rank partying and professors, but not sexual safety. Sexual assaults have, unfortunately, been largely invisible. 

Within this information abyss, UChicago has the dubious distinction of making the list of 60 schools currently under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault. Absent other data, prospective students and their parents cannot help but factor the investigations into their college selection decisions. But, is that fair? I would wager that the practices at the 60 schools represent the norm, not the exception: those schools just got taken to task by savvy and tenacious students like UChicago’s Olivia Ortiz. 

I am a typical campus rape survivor and a typical UChicago rape survivor. A man—a fellow student, a friend, and, yes, a football player—raped me in my dorm room. I was a first-year student and incapacitated. And like most campus rape survivors, I did not tell anyone at the University. It never occurred to me to report the crime to the police. 

Why not? Because I didn’t dare tell myself. It took years of shedding deep shame and self-blame for me to acknowledge that a sexual predator had indeed raped me. Many students also don’t report incidents because they fear retaliation by the perpetrator. 

According to a 2007 government study, one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college. That translates to over 100 women in each graduating class at UChicago. Yet, in federally mandated 2012 statistics, UChicago reported only eight documented sexual assaults, four of which were in dorms. UChicago is not unique in this gap between actual and reported. Nationwide, institutions of higher learning reported one assault for every 10,000 women enrolled. 

Anonymous student climate surveys can document all assaults, not just the tiny percentage that survivors have the wherewithal to report through official channels. The White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault urged our nation’s colleges and universities to conduct such climate surveys in order to know the extent of the problem as a first step in solving it. This is a very good idea, but the data also need to be published. 

In over 75 percent of college cases, victims know their perpetrators, whether as an acquaintance, classmate, friend, or boyfriend. In tight-knit campus communities, anonymous surveys allow students to be truthful without fear of reprisal. And, by asking about hypothetical scenarios, surveys can identify crimes that traumatized students may not themselves identify. Students may answer “yes” to whether someone sexually penetrated them when they were unable to consent, but may not feel confident labeling that event “rape,” especially when it was perpetrated by a popular guy in Western Civ.

This year’s Senior Survey, sent out by Dean Boyer, included no questions about sexual assault. In 2012, UChicago conducted a random-sample survey that did include questions about sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact for the National College Health Assessment. The University, however, has not released that data. A Federal mandate to conduct surveys and publish the results will get schools past the first-mover problem in which no school is willing to be the first to release its assault rates. 

There is precedent for conducting and publishing such surveys. The U.S. Military Service Academies already monitor their sexual-assault-prevention efforts with biannual anonymous surveys. As a result, we know that young women serving our country are slightly better off at the Coast Guard Academy, where 10 percent of women experienced unwanted sexual contact, rather than at the Naval Academy, where 15 percent did.

Knowing the actual assault rates will help schools determine when prevention programs are working and when they aren’t. But the pressure is also on for transparency. Publishing the results of anonymous student climate surveys will make the invisible visible. And undeniable. It will give prospective students and their parents hard data for comparing the safety of different campuses. The necessary reforms will inevitably follow.

Michele Beaulieux is an alumna of the class of ‘82. She curates news about campus sexual violence at facebook.com/cultureofconsent.