Virginia Commonwealth University

Make it real.

Many Say Schools Underreport Sexual Assaults

May 13, 2010

By Meghan Spellman and Christian Wright
Capital News Service

Surveys show how disturbingly common rape is among college students.

One survey of college women said one in four had been the victim of rape or attempted rape since their 14th birthday. Another survey said one in five had been raped at some point in their life. Yet another survey said 3 percent of college women survive a rape or attempted rape during a typical school year.

But there is a huge disconnect between those figures and the number of sexual assaults reported on college campuses. Look at what Virginia’s biggest universities – all with more than 30,000 students – reported for 2008, the latest year for which data are available:

George Mason University in Fairfax reported 11 rapes. Virginia Tech reported four rapes. And Virginia Commonwealth University reported three rapes on the Monroe Park campus and five at the Medical College of Virginia.

Because of such discrepancies, many officials believe sexual assaults are grossly underreported by colleges and universities.

Schools must report statistics for such crimes every year under a federal law called the Clery Act. The act was prompted by the rape and murder of a Lehigh University freshman in 1986. It requires schools to annually publish a variety of data – notably about crime.

The law is intended to inform current and prospective students about crime on campus. Some universities use their Clery Act data as a public relations tool. For example, VCU touted itself as “the safest school in Virginia” after the latest Clery data were published.

However, many say the Clery data are flawed.

“Clery is highly political,” says Tammy McKeown, coordinator of the VCU program called S.A.V.E.S – Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Services.

“Clery has to be supported from the top down, and here’s why: If those crime numbers are high, they (parents) might not send their student here. So it’s in every university’s best interest to keep those numbers low.”

Underreporting can happen for various reasons, such as the exact location of the crime.

Suppose, for example, a rape occurs at an apartment complex close to campus that mainly houses and advertises to college students. Technically, the rape would be an off-campus crime – and so it wouldn’t be included in the school’s statistics.


An interactive map of sexual assaults near VCU’s Monroe Park Campus (data source: Richmond Police Department)


Another issue with the Clery Act concerns how local police data are reported. While local police will contact the campus about sexual assaults that involve college students, the Clery Act often omits these incidents.

Even though the crimes may not get reported, universities still deal with such cases.

VCU Police Officer James Deford said the university has specially trained victim/witness coordinators who work with the VCU Wellness Center, student counseling and community groups to aid sexual assault victims. Victims are offered these resources as well as literature to decide what they should do.

“If Richmond (Police Department) notifies us that one of our students has been involved in a sexual assault case, usually one of us will respond to the scene as well,” Deford said. “A lot of times, if we’re not notified immediately after the fact, we send them an e-mail and offer our services because we don’t want to push them. If they say no at any point, then we back off, but if they want our help, then we’re more than happy to do that for them.”

From there, Deford said victims decide whether to take legal action. If criminal charges are filed, one of the victim/witness specialists will accompany the victim in court.

Although he does not know the statistics exactly, Deford does not believe sexual violence reports are made as often as they should be.

“I don’t think it’s reported as much as it really happens,” Deford said. “There’s probably a large population that we’re unaware of that we don’t help. I would say it at least happens a couple of times a year, and we’ll be notified of something if it does, but I don’t know the exact statistics.”

Clouding the Clery Act data as well is the lack of action taken by sexual assault victims. Often, the victims don’t press charges against the assailant.

“We have laws that aren’t perfect,” McKeown said. “In most of the cases that I have where people file an official police report, they never make it to the courtroom.”

McKeown said there are several reasons why victims don’t speak out about sexual assault crimes.

“There’s lots of reasons,” McKeown explained. “Number one, it could be that they’re just trying to put their life back together. Sexual assault is a trauma, and people react as if they’ve been through a trauma. So a lot of times people are just trying to get their lives back together.”

McKeown said some victims feel that they won’t be believed or taken seriously – and that they’ll be blamed. They also may fear that their attacker will retaliate, she said.

McKeown and others at VCU are trying to change the social stigmas associated with being a rape victim – and in particular to prevent victims from blaming themselves.

During Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, VCU holds sexual assault awareness events such as the Clothesline Project and Take Back the Night.

“Historically, women face anxiety of walking the streets at night, and that is why Take Back the Night first began,” said Jenny Walters of S.A.V.E.S.

“Over the last 30 years in the United States, Take Back the Night has returned its focus to eliminating sexual violence in all forms.”

On April 8, students, faculty and other people gathered in the VCU Student Commons to raise awareness about sexual assault that occurs on and off campus. They also offered support for rape victims to come forward to break their silence.


On the Web

To view or analyze the crime data for a college or university, visit the Campus Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool website created by the U.S. Department of Education: