Colleges Must Recognize Student Risk Factors and Report Accurate Sexual Assault Statistics

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Author: Jeff Nesbit
Date: 2016
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Viewpoint essay
Length: 1,144 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1270L

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“Parents want assurances that colleges are paying attention to both incapacitated and forcible rape on campus. Knowing both the actual numbers and the underlying factors are critical pieces of that equation.”

Jeff Nesbit is a journalist and author and served as the National Science Foundation’s director of legislative and public affairs in the Bush and Obama administrations. In the following viewpoint, he writes of the significance of two recent studies related to college rape; one study identifies the risk factors that may lead a freshman woman to become a victim of incapacitated rape, and the other documents the phenomenon of colleges under-reporting campus sexual assault data. Nesbit argues that sexual assault prevention programs should be designed with risk factors in mind, such as attitude toward alcohol and having previously been a victim of sexual assault. He contends that programs can consider these risk factors without engaging in victim blaming. Nesbit also examines the evidence that colleges and universities are systematically under-reporting sexual assault statistics. Becoming aware of students’ risk factors is only part of the equation, Nesbit maintains. If colleges want to show that they are taking action against rape, he concludes, they must report their statistics accurately.

As you read, consider the following questions:

  1. According to Nesbit’s research, what are the risk factors for becoming a victim of sexual assault on campus?
  2. At what age does the author suggest students should take part in sexual assault prevention programs?
  3. As described by Nesbit, what happens to campus rape statistics when an institution is audited by the Department of Education?

During their freshman year of college 15 percent of women are raped while incapacitated from alcohol or drugs, according to new research. It’s hard to imagine a more sobering statistic—one that should strike fear in the hearts of parents and college administrators alike.

What’s perhaps more important than this statistic about “incapacitated rape” is that there is also a pattern. Freshmen women who’d been victims of such assaults before college were at substantial risk of being victimized again, according to the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (the oldest substance-related journal in the United States).

The researchers found 18 percent of students said they’d been raped while incapacitated before college, and 41 percent of those young women were raped again while incapacitated during their freshman year. The new study (based on interviews with nearly 500 young women) gives us a much clearer picture of which college freshmen are most at risk.

Recognizing Risk Factors for Incapacitated Rape

So why aren’t warning bells ringing on college campuses? Good question. No one is blaming the victims. But risk factors for sexual assault on college campuses are critical to help everyone understand the underlying factors behind the issue.

“We’re trying to identify modifiable factors that increase risk for incapacitated rape,” Kate Carey, a professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University’s School of Public Health and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

The fact that first-year women are intoxicated doesn’t excuse the crime of sexual assault, Carey said. But knowing that so many of these victims had previously been assaulted before their freshman year at college is important preventative information.

There are other risk factors as well, the researchers found. A student’s view on alcohol, for instance, is important. Young women who said that they believed that drinking enhanced sexual experiences were at greater risk of incapacitated rape during their freshman year, regardless of whether they’d been victims before college.

Access to Prevention Programs

This is important information. If it’s true (as this study seems to show) that students who believe that mixing alcohol and sex are a good thing are also at greater risk of incapacitated risk, then college programs designed to protect students from sexual assault should take note.

While these prevention programs need to be “universal,” aimed at all students, it’s obvious they should look seriously at specific attitudes (like students’ expectations about alcohol and sex) or behaviors (like incidents prior to college).

What this study highlights is the collision of two powerful forces—the fact that drinking and drug use on college campuses is pervasive, while parents and regulators alike are demanding significant, meaningful action to deal with campus sexual assault.

College administrators and trustees have their work cut out for them. Four out of five college students drink alcohol—and about half of those admit that they sometimes binge when they drink, according to previous research highlighted by national groups such as the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Other research has found that incapacitated rape is more common on college campuses than forcible rape (where serial rapists use threats or physical force).

What this study also shows is that prevention efforts need to begin much, much earlier. College is too late. It’s obvious that a significant number of these young women are victims long before college.

“The pre-college assessment went back to as early as age 14,” Carey added. “That suggests that sexual assault education needs to begin earlier.” And if prevention efforts are simply limited to college campuses, they’ll miss young women who don’t attend college.

Colleges and Universities Are Under-Reporting Sexual Assault Statistics

This new research comes on the heels of another study that found college administrators almost certainly under-report cases of rape on their campuses—unless auditors show up.

No school wants to be known as a place where administrators turn a blind eye to sexual assault, yet that may be what’s happening on hundreds of college campuses right now.

The Clery Act requires more than 11,000 schools in the United States to submit campus crime information to the Department of Education. But a novel study from the University of Kansas found a very curious fact when it took a deeper look at reports from the largest colleges in the country (those with 10,000 or more students). When a school is audited—meaning someone starts looking over the shoulders of the college administrators responsible for reporting those crime statistics to the Department of Education—the number of sexual assaults reported goes up by 44 percent. Then, when the auditors go away, the numbers drop back down.

So what does this systematic under-reporting mean?

“I think it varies substantially from campus to campus why sexual assaults may be under-reported, but the evidence shows that undercounting is taking place,” Kansas law professor Corey Rayburn Yung, one of the study authors, said in the statement. And the consequences of this under-reporting may mean that serial rapists—who account for 90 percent of sexual assaults—may go undetected, Yung added.

What both of these studies tell us should be clear. Knowledge about behaviors and beliefs are important for prevention programs, and we need to recognize that a significant percentage of college rape cases simply aren’t being reported.

Parents want assurances that colleges are paying attention to both incapacitated and forcible rape on campus. Knowing both the actual numbers and the underlying factors are critical pieces of that equation.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|ZGJZOQ255077481