Urban Wire With Policy in Flux, What Does the Evidence Say about Campus Sexual Assault Reporting?
Eleanor Wilson
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Reporting a sexual assault is both challenging and emotionally taxing. Sexual assault is a widely underreported crime in the United States—80 percent of cases are not reported to the police (PDF). People don’t report their assaults for many different reasons: shame, the desire to forget, and the lengthy and sometimes retraumatizing reporting process.

Reporting and prosecuting sexual assault on college campuses is especially challenging. When reporting an assault on a college campus, a person generally has two options: report to the college, a quasi-legal system (PDF), or report to local law enforcement.

Rules surrounding campus reporting are in flux

Currently, the US Department of Education’s policies regarding campus sexual assault are not set in stone, leading to confusion and variance in campus adjudication. At the end of 2018, secretary of education Betsy DeVos released a new rule for comment that changes how colleges handle sexual assault.

The proposed rules change schools’ responsibilities on campus, which were most recently dictated by the Obama administration’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter (PDF). This letter led to schools revamping their internal judicial systems that manage student conduct and gave students an alternative to involving local law enforcement in taking action against people who commit such crimes.

What does this mean for students reporting sexual assault?

The comment period is closed, but the new rule has not yet been put into effect, leaving colleges unsure of where their current policies stand. More than 100,000 comments were submitted, many highlighting the proposed changes and the effects they would have on victims of sexual assault (PDF):

  • A new definition of sexual harassment

New terminology such as “severe,” “pervasive,” and “objectively offensive” create a narrower definition of sexual harassment, therefore narrowing the complaints and reports colleges will have to act on.

  • Raising the standard of evidence

New “clear and convincing” evidence standards are more aligned with the standards of a criminal case, compared with previous “preponderance of the evidence” standards. The former means it is more likely than not that sexual harassment occurred, which is the standard for all civil cases.

  • Different response techniques

Mediation and cross-examination are both introduced as options throughout reporting and processing the complaint. Both involve the victim and the assaulter in the same room, which can be potentially retraumatizing for the victim.

Victims benefit from trauma-informed, victim-centered, and offender-focused models

As the state of reporting on college campuses remains in flux, it’s critical that policymakers follow the evidence to make informed and thoughtful policies.

  • Formal avenues of reporting are important. A study shows how informal supports, such as peers or family, have more negative reactions to someone discussing his or her assault than formal supports. Organizations specifically focused on helping survivors of sexual assault provide more informed aid to best support the victims in their choice to report to authorities.
  • These formal avenues should be inclusive and supportive. The Model Response to Sexual Violence for Prosecutors (PDF), though intended for the criminal justice system, still can inform campus processes, in that it details the importance of providing a safe space for victims to share their stories, being able to meaningfully communicate with authorities, and collecting and preserving what evidence there is.
  • Students need access to these organizations. In one study, just 16 percent of female students received assistance from a victim service agency. It is crucial that formal avenues of support are accessible to students who have been sexually assaulted.

The evidence shows that students reporting sexual assault benefit from access to formal and inclusive organizations that give informed advice on reporting. No matter the changes on college campuses, using data-informed policies is critical to providing a safer pathway for students to report sexual assault.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Higher education Victims of crime Crime and justice analytics
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center