Updated 6:59 p.m., Sept. 21, with McCaskill comment: New research about sexual assault on college campuses shows Washington University in somewhat better shape than its peer institutions, but officials at the school admit they still have a lot more work to do to prevent problems for students.
National data released Monday by the Association of American Universities showed that 11.7 percent of all students responding to a survey reported that since entering college, they had experienced some form of non-consensual sexual contact involving physical force or incapacitation.
Among female undergraduate students, that number rose to 23.1 percent, according to the survey conducted this spring at 27 colleges and universities, including Washington U. and the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Figures reported by Washington U. showed 10.9 percent of all students reporting some form of nonconsensual sexual contact, including 22.6 percent of female undergraduates.
Provost Holden Thorp said the new data are in line with results of earlier surveys on campus. Washington U. is continuing to make sure students understand that such behavior will not be tolerated, he said, and that efforts at prevention and support are increasing.
“There’s not really any good news in the survey,” he said in an interview before the results were released. “It’s a serious problem. We are trying to be as transparent as we can about the fact that it’s here. We think that’s an incredibly important step to addressing it.
“And we feel really good about the fact that we did the survey with our peers. It’s clear we’re all going to have to work together in order to come up with the new ideas it’s going to take to address this.”
Other survey results showed that 69.7 percent of Washington U. students, and 62.9 percent of undergraduate women, thought campus officials would take reports of sexual assault or misconduct seriously. And 64.1 percent of all students and 76.1 percent of undergraduate women said they were somewhat, very or extremely knowledgeable about where to get help at the university if they or a friend experienced sexual assault or misconduct.
Those figures were better than or similar to the national data.
Asked whether they thought that Washington U. officials would conduct a fair investigation of a report of sexual assault or misconduct, only about half – 53.2 percent of all students and 48.6 percent of undergraduate women – answered they were very or extremely likely to think so.
Jessica Kennedy, who was named Title IX coordinator at Washington U. last year, said she feels that percentage will rise as students become more comfortable with the university’s procedures.
“As more students go through the process,” Kennedy said, “more students will feel, I think, confident that they will get a fair hearing in the process. Because they talk to their peers and they know someone who’s been a witness or has been an accused student or has been a complainant in one of those matters.
“It’s a new process that is more fair and more supportive than what existed previously. We in no way think we don’t have any more work to do. We see encouraging signs in these results, but in no way, shape or form are we resting on any laurel that might be here.”
Mizzou a focal point
Sexual assault on campus has become a larger issue in recent years. One case that spurred interest happened at Mizzou, when a student named Sasha Menu Courey committed suicide in 2011, after, it was later revealed, she had reported being raped.
The case drew attention from the public and from U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has conducted hearings and public forums on the issue. She welcomed the AAU effort when it was announced last year in the wake of reports that Congress might try to have schools respond to a government survey on campus sexual assault.
After the report was released Monday, she issued this statement:
“Today’s survey further underscores the need for our bipartisan legislation—including climate surveys, which are one of the strongest tools for understanding and helping curb sexual violence. The results should be a wakeup call for all colleges and universities about this widespread, underreported crime on our campuses, and we’ve got to do a better job combating it.
"I’m pleased that so many schools participated in the survey and are committed to understanding and battling this crime, but we’ve got to continue working to get these surveys on every campus in this country.”
The AAU survey prompted some resistance from members of the association, which includes the nation’s top research universities. About half of the members of the group chose not to take part, with many saying they would conduct their own survey instead.
Questions that the survey sought to answer included:
- What is the campus climate around sexual assault and misconduct?
- What do students know and think about resources available to them on the issue?
- What is the frequency and nature of sexual assault?
- What is the frequency and nature of misconduct because of coercion and absence of consent?
- What is the frequency and nature of sexual harassment, intimate partner violence and stalking?
During a conference call to release the data, AAU President Hunter Rawlings said that he didn't have much sense of what the data would say, since research on the topic of sexual assualt on campus is still relatively new. He also said he wasn't sure whether the organization would be doing a follow-up study.
And he emphasized what the goal of the research has been from the start.
"The purpose of this survey is to enhance the safety of students on our campuses," Rawlings said.
"It is our hope that these universities and others will be able to make use of these data on behalf of their students, not simply to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and sexual misconduct, but also to encourage reporting and to ensure that reports of sexual assault and sexual misconduct are handled with care, compassion and a commitment to fair, prompt and impartial review and resolution."
At the University of Missouri-Columbia, where efforts to combat sexual assault have accelerated in recent months, a report released last week said that 332 reports of sex, gender or sexual orientation discrimination had been submitted in the year ending July 31.
Results of the AAU survey at Mizzou can be read here.
Based upon the survey results, it is estimated that 30.8 percent of MU’s senior females have been victims of nonconsensual sexual contact involving physical force or incapacitation since enrolling at Mizzou.
The survey revealed that 64.7 percent of MU students think it is likely that their report would be taken seriously by campus officials. This compares to the AAU mean of 63.3 percent. Also, 56.4 percent of MU students said it is very or extremely likely that the safety of those reporting incidents would be protected by university officials. The AAU mean was 56.5 percent.
“The fact that an estimated 30.8 percent of our senior female students say that since they entered MU, they have been victims of some kind of unwanted sexual conduct is very disturbing to me, as I’m sure these results are to every administrator of every institution participating in the survey,” MU Provost Garnett Stokes said.
“These results show us that we still have much work to do. I am encouraged, however, that a large percentage of our students know how and to whom they should report these incidents.
UM system President Tim Wolfe, who has been active in Title IX issues, said in a statement:
“Our priority is more than just fostering safe and respectful environments on our campuses, it is to maintain the University of Missouri System’s national leadership role in terms of how we address the challenging, societal issue of sexual misconduct.
“It is highly encouraging that the surveys revealed that awareness of the myriad of resources available to our students is increasing due to our determined efforts. Engaging in detailed surveys that ask difficult questions, questions that we know may yield a number of negative responses, is absolutely necessary for us to learn how to make our campuses places of excellence that are safe venues to grow and learn.”
Alarming, but not surprising
At Washington U., Thorp said he saw clearly when he became provost two years ago that the issue would need more attention. Instead of handling student complaints through the university’s HR department, he hired Kennedy as Title IX coordinator. In addition, Kim Webb directs the campus’ Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) center.
Webb said the issue has become one of student well-being.
“We look at it as a community health issue,” she said. We know this problem is pervasive. The statistics are alarming, but not surprising.”
Kennedy said that as students become more comfortable with policies that Washington U. is emphasizing, reports of incidents of sexual assault and misconduct are likely to rise. The issue is largely one of changing culture on campus, she said, and demonstrating that the university can handle such cases in a fair and competent way.
“What we know about treating victims and survivors,” she said, “is that giving them control and giving them the power to decide for themselves how they’re going to proceed through the process is paramount. We leave it up to them.
“There are limited circumstances where we have to take action based on safety concerns, but generally speaking we leave it up to those individuals to decide how they want to proceed. We give them that information, and we’re there to support them every step of the way, whatever they decide.”
And, Kennedy added, the university has to be sensitive to the fact that in many cases, both the accuser and the accused are students.
“All of the accommodations that are available to our victim-survivors are also available to our accused students,” she said. “We will find them a new place to live. We will help them with academic support if they needed. We give them psychological help. We give them medical help if they need it, whatever that may be.
“It’s incredibly important that our process be fair to both parties as they they’re going through the process, and that’s something that we feel really strongly about.”
Asked whether students who may be victims worry about retaliation if they file formal complaints, Kennedy said retaliation is not tolerated, but the situation can be tricky.
“It is hard in a community like this one, where people are so close,” she said. “They live together. They eat together. They study together. They do all these things together. It is hard to prevent chatter, to prevent talk, to prevent gossip. But what we will not tolerate is people being made to feel uncomfortable or being targeted because of their participation either in our judicial process or just by being identified as someone who has suffered sexual assault or received help for that.”
On some campuses, students follow step-by-step consent guidelines in intimate situations, to avoid misunderstandings or unwanted sexual behavior. Kennedy said Washington U. has an affirmative consent policy, but such guidelines aren’t always the answer.
“I think there’s a misconception about policies like that,” she said. “I think people think that I really means every 30 seconds you check in, or every time you move a body part someone needs to ask for consent, and that certainly is not the case at this university.
“We talk a lot about the fact that when you’ve had sexual contact with someone previously – either a week before, a day before, or even five minutes before – that doesn’t mean they are consenting to future activity.”
Still, she said, complaints most often result from actions between two people who know each other, not actions involving violence on the street.
“It’s not a stranger jumping out of the bushes,” Kennedy said. “It’s not physical force where someone’s head is slammed up against a wall, or where there’s a weapon used. So often, the cases that we see really do turn on that issue of consent. So, it’s something that we talk about all the time.”
Accounts of sexual assault on campus draw a lot of attention, but they are not always verified or verifiable – witness the story published in Rolling Stone magazine about a gang rape at the University of Virginia that turned out to be fabricated.
Do such examples tend to dampen students’ willingness to report the real thing? Webb said such cases highlight the need to reassure people that their complaints will be taken seriously.
“I think articles like that do have a chilling effect on our students,” she said “They are afraid they are not going to be believed.”
In the wake of the AAU survey and other reports, Thorp said that it is clear that the issue of sexual assault will be a key one for university administrators to face.
“The benefit of it has been that it’s out in the open that we need to deal with this,” he said. “There’s nobody who’s going to become a provost or a chancellor of a university any time soon who’s not going to realize that this is one of the things they really need to deal with.”