From Classroom to Courtroom: Reporting Campus Sexual Assault

Trish Oberweis is a member of the Sociology Faculty in the department of Sociology & Criminal Justice Studies at SIUE. She is a long-standing and active member of the Women’s Studies program. Recently, Oberweis delivered a talk about sexual assault on college campuses as part of our SIUE Women’s Studies Speaker Series. In this blog entry, she conveys what she believes to be some of the fundamental elements affecting reporting of campus sexual assault.

Reporting sexual assaults on campus is a tricky, sticky issue. There are several layers of concerns, and new avenues for assault survivors to use, although these are not problem-free.


Around 41% of schools in a 2014 national sample of college campuses reported that they had not conducted an investigation into a sexual assault case in 5 years. Investigations were much rarer at private for-profit schools and small schools. In a separate sample of the country’s largest public schools, the survey found that 94% had conducted an investigation in this time frame.
SOURCE: Al Jazeera America, 2014

First an obvious point: no agency can respond to campus sexual assault without a report that the crime has occurred. Yet reporting is woefully rare. Only about 8% of all rapes (on or off campus) are reported to police, and a 2015 study found that fewer than half of the most severe cases of campus sexual assault were reported—to anyone. Some of the victims who do choose to report the events do so to seek justice: they want their attackers to be punished. Many others do it to promote safety: they want their attackers to be removed from their lives and/or they want to prevent him (and it is usually a him) from being able to assault anyone else. These are all excellent reasons for reporting the crime.

Traditionally, the crime could only be reported to the police and the avenue for redress was the criminal justice system. Research suggests that, for a variety of reasons, this avenue is wildly unpopular with victims. Research clearly identifies a string of excellent reasons for the well-established tradition of avoiding police. But the times are changing.

Research has demonstrated for decades that college campuses are not safe spaces for women, and recent attention has centered on the unique problem of campus sexual assault. This crime phenomenon is unique for a number of reasons, but in particular because entering college marks a time of relative freedom and experimentation. The crime of campus sexual assault most often victimizes the youngest (freshman) students. Statistically, safety increases every year until graduation. During their college years, though, roughly 1 in 4-5 female students are sexually assaulted, including the 11-13% (depending on the study) whose bodies will be penetrated during the attack. Other than age, risk factors include prior sexual assault victimization, use of alcohol and other drugs, and sorority membership (perhaps as an extension of the alcohol and other drug risk factor, as “Greek” students are more likely than their non-pledged counterparts to drink alcohol, and to do so more heavily). (Learn more here or here or check out a summary here.)

Today, in 2015, under the authority of the US Department of Education, colleges and Universities have created a response protocol to sexual assault that runs parallel to the criminal justice system and operates independently of it. In the same way that campus officials can punish pot smokers, under aged drinkers and other criminal offenders on campus without the criminal justice system, so to can they now investigate and adjudicate claims of campus sexual assault. The standard of proof in campus investigations is limited to “the preponderance of the evidence” and not the criminal justice system’s “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is because the proceedings on campus are civil, not criminal, and because the punishments resulting from campus hearings cannot ever include University-mandated incarceration, whatever the circumstances. In essence, the university is empowered to move an alleged offenders out of the victim’s residence hall or classrooms, or even to suspend or expel the accused student if the available evidence suggests that it is more likely than not that the accused student perpetrated the acts. Moreover, the investigation, hearing, and adjudication are entirely independent of the criminal justice system. No police report is required for the University to investigate and act, but a victim is able to activate either or both systems of adjudication, as he/she deems appropriate.

The benefits of this parallel system are obvious: a woman a decade ago who was assaulted or raped on campus by a fellow student would potentially have to live near her rapist or assaulter. She likely would have continued to see him in her classes, at her dinner hour, or on the way to the showers. His presence in her life may have been inescapable, terrifying and/or humiliating. Her avenue for relief would have been to leave school. Allowing a separate system creates an opportunity to move the offender and the victim apart, or even to create accountability for the offender, although the first small study of outcomes undertaken by the Pulitzer-prize winning Center for Public Integrity shows that consequences are typically very light (such as suspending the attacker for a summer semester), even for repeat offenders, and expulsions are almost non-existent.

Some wonder if this is the best way to handle the problem. A lobby has formed to support the proposed “Safe Campus Act” which would prohibit colleges and Universities from investigating and responding to claims of sexual assault unless the victim files a police report. This lobby includes official support from the Panhellenic Association, which has hired attorney Trent Lott to promote the proposed legislation. This would be very effective in silencing sexual assault victims, as we already know from countless studies that activating the police is strongly resisted by female victims—and may be even more strongly resisted by male victims.

Another drawback is that Universities need to recruit students. If they were to actively pursue good accounting and generate consistent reporting of sexual assault event, they would necessarily undermine their own best interests. What families would send their daughters to a campus with a 23% sexual assault rate, when another campus reports just 4%? Campus authorities are ostensibly left in a conflict of interest: promote their own recruitment data or protect victims. There is no easy answer here, but who would deny that there is a moral obligation to protect victims over protecting universities? I would argue that protecting female students IS promoting recruitment, as women now outnumber men on campus, but this idealistic reasoning only hold true when families are well educated about what higher statistics imply: active engagement with the problem.


Image shows a picture of Jeanne Clery, with the text: “Jeanne Clery Campus Security Policy & Crime Statistics Disclosure Act: Jeanne Clery was raped and murdered in her dorm room at Lehigh University in 1986. Her parents believe she would have been more cautious if she had known about other violent crimes at Lehigh.”

Another complicating factor comes from the Clery Act, which requires campuses to report to all constituents any crime that may pose an imminent, continuing threat to the campus community. So, does a campus rape pose a threat to other students? Given that research suggests there is a small fraction of men who serially target and assault young, inexperienced women, surely we have to answer affirmatively. If there is one, the next is likely coming. Is the threat imminent? That is a dicier proposition. The Clery Act requires reporting of the crime, but also other details, such as places and a sketch of circumstances, and therefore poses a threat to the privacy of the reporting party. Indeed, the Clery Act may create a real catch-22 for campuses: failure to report results in a fine from federal authorities while proceeding with the report can violate the trust of assault and rape victims, further reducing the probability of the next victim making a report. Perhaps there is some wiggle room around the question of an “imminent” threat, but which avenue supports justice for victims and for the campus community.

These are the challenges of the day. The problem is stark, abundantly prevalent and abhorrent to (nearly) everyone. The solutions, though, are tricky. Accountability is key, yet reporting can be treacherous. The Safe Campus Act will be the kiss of death to holding students accountable (sign the petition to oppose it here). It is possible that Clery Act Reporting may inhibit reporting, too, if the victim’s privacy does take a central place in what and how we report. And, no action to address campus sexual assault can happen without a report.


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One response to “From Classroom to Courtroom: Reporting Campus Sexual Assault

  1. Pingback: “He said/She said” and the gendered dynamics of rape reporting | SIUE Women's Studies Program

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