By Elena Weissmann
The Washington Post published an article in June featuring a list of universities and their respective number of reported rape cases for 2014. While Brown University and the University of Connecticut topped the list—at 43 reported rapes each—schools like Northwestern and Johns Hopkins nearly bottomed out at just three.
Although the Post noted a degree of progress, it went on to argue that schools with the highest number of reported rapes—about 10 percent of college women—were still not hitting the oft-quoted one-in-five statistic, which claims one out of every five college women experience some form of sexual assault. That’s why it was so surprising, then, that the Post barely touched upon a number that overshadowed all others on the list: zero.
There were zero reported cases of rape at five hundred schools in the year 2014, according to The Washington Post’s analysis. These are not small, low-profile schools. New York University, Brigham Young University-Idaho, and CUNY Hunter College are all institutions with over 20,000 students that reported zero incidents of rape.
This is “statistically impossible,” Dr. Gail Stern, a sexual assault educator, told TheDCNF. “It makes absolutely no sense. It just tells you the level of denial.”
Mark Goodman, professor and knight chair in scholastic journalism at Kent State University, echoed that statement to TheDCNF. “The likelihood that there are zero such instances in a calendar year is virtually non-existent,” he said.
Goodman suggested that there are two possible reasons for the reports—or lack thereof: students are too uncomfortable to report the crime, or schools are receiving the reports but not filing the cases under federal guidelines. “In any case, the school looks really bad,” he said.
The federal mandatory campus crime reporting law, known as the Clery Act, may contain loopholes that allow schools to grossly under report the number of students that come forward with rape allegations. For example, all counselors with confidentiality protection are exempt from reporting rape cases under the Clery Act, which distorts the number of official claims.
Sexual assaults are only counted by an institution if reported to individuals known as “campus security authorities,” according to the Clery Center for Security on Campus. The loose term may include campus police departments, administrative bodies, and campus centers, such as student health centers. Reported crimes must also take place on campus or within one block of campus to count.
Nikki Cooter, the official at Syracuse University responsible for gathering data on sexual assault, told TheDCNF she sends out a campus-wide email soliciting accounts of sexual assault from all campus authorities.
“As far as I know, they have reported every single case that I’m aware of,” said Cooter.
Syracuse, which boasts a student population of 21,492, reported just one case of rape in 2014. Cooter could not explain the impossibly low number.
“I cannot hazard a guess as to why,” she said. “I am not personally aware of anything that makes reporting more difficult here as opposed to anywhere else.”
Cooter added that it would take students some time to become “comfortable” enough with the “structure” to report their sexual assaults.
The official number of reported rapes for Syracuse in 2014 will jump from one to four, Cooter said, “because there is now additional information…but that’s not a reflection of us hiding anything.”
Schools do not necessarily collect data from all possible authorities.
“It’s only when crimes are dealt with through law enforcement agencies that there will be full oversight and reporting,” Goodman said. “If it’s dealt with internally, the charges may be kept secret,” he added.
Other schools may mislabel cases of sexual assault, sometimes deliberately. In December, 2011, the Department of Education (DOE) fined the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) $82,500 for failing to comply with the Clery Act. The final program review states that UTA “improperly classified a forcible sex offense as an ‘assault,’” which resulted in the crime not being reported in UTA’s Annual Security Report. UTA appealed the decision and later settled for $49,500, without admitting any wrongdoing.
The DOE fined Salem International University $200,000 in April, 2005, after never reporting a sexual assault in its Clery reports, despite the fact that there had been five documented cases of “forcible sexual offenses” reported to university offices since the passage of the Clery Act.
“The institution was unable to fully explain why none of these incidents were included in the Campus Security Report,” the final program review states.
Brigham Young University-Idaho, with a student population of 36,624, reported zero rapes for 2014. When asked by TheDCNF about the number, the school responded with a statement asserting that “BYU-Idaho is committed to promoting a safe and respectful campus environment.”
Similarly, La Salle University—a medium-sized school that also reported zero rapes—wrote in an email to TheDCNF, “La Salle has been fully compliant with the [Clery Act]…any explanation for the zero forcible sex offenses in 2014 would be speculative and therefore irresponsible for the University to comment on.”
New York University (NYU), a school of 49,274 students, reported zero rapes for 2014 — although this may be attributed to its decentralized campus and “integration into NYC,” said James Devitt, deputy director of media relations at NYU, to TheDCNF. Since most dorms are not located within one block of NYU’s “campus,” they do not count under Clery reporting guidelines.
Schools with low numbers are not necessarily schools with less sexual assault, said Mary Friedrichs, former director of the Office of Victim Assistance at the University of Colorado-Boulder, to TheDCNF.
“The campuses with the highest numbers are the schools that are doing the most to respond to sexual assault…the ones with the lowest numbers are doing the least,” she said. “As a parent, I don’t think I would necessarily pick a school with the lowest numbers to send my kid to.”
The purpose of the Clery Act is to disclose information about crime on or near campus, yet the hundreds of “statistically impossible” reports call into question its usefulness as a quantitative tool.
“It was intended to tell the world how many sex assaults occur on any given campus,” Friedrichs said. “Yet there are many factors that don’t let that happen. Simply nothing is going to get reported.”