Sweeping Campus Rape Reports Under the Rug

shutterstock_133876826There’s new evidence to suggest that college administrations are actively—and artificially—keeping campus rape numbers low. A study from the University of Kansas, published recently in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, found that when post-secondary schools are being audited for Clery Act violations—i.e. failure to report to the federal government the number of sexual assaults taking place on campus—the number of rape reports rose by 44 percent from pre-audit numbers.

According to the study,

The results are consistent with the hypothesis that the ordinary practice of universities is to undercount incidents of sexual assault. Only during periods in which schools are audited do they appear to offer a more complete picture of sexual assault levels on campus. Further, the data indicate that the audits have no long-term effect on the reported levels of sexual assault, as those crime rates return to previous levels after the audit is completed.

So to sum up: When the feds are watching, schools are on their best behavior. But as soon as the proverbial cameras are off, it’s back to hushing up rape survivors and sweeping sexual assault reports under the rug.

To back up their assertion, the researchers pointed to sexual assault reports at Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal: While that school was under investigation between 2010 and 2012, partly to do with Clery Act noncompliance, sexual assault reports rose by a jaw-dropping 1,389 percent (there’s no current data to show whether or not rape reports dropped back to pre-audit levels after that). The regulatory scrutiny, combined with the social scrutiny wrought by Sandusky’s crimes, seemed to send Penn State’s administration into Clery Act-compliance overdrive.

Why are college administrators so eager to keep campus rape numbers artificially low? That’s simple: Being known as a “rape school” isn’t great for enrollment or a school’s bottom line, since too many sexual assault reports could deter wealthy alumni donors. But that leaves survivors grappling—most times unsuccessfully—for justice.

The good news is activists and politicians have lit the fire under school administrations and Congress to make policy changes to better support students—let’s hope those in power make the right choices.

To find out more about the national campus sexual assault crisis, read the Winter/Spring 2014 Ms. cover story.

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Stephanie hails from Toronto, Canada. She is a Ms. writer, a master of journalism candidate and a hip hop dancer/instructor/choreographer. She got her start in feminist journalism at the age of 16 when she was a member of the first editorial collective at Shameless magazine—and she has never looked back.