Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Statistics: Surprising and non-existent

A short, but important editorial from this past weekend's New York Times about the statistics on campus sexual assault covering two angles.

The first is one with which many are familiar: we don't know the rate of campus sexual assault. The one in five statistic is based on a small sample size. The unreliability of that number is fodder for those who believe the problem is not as serious as the recent campus activists have made it out to be. It has also been suggested that the number is inflated because women are "crying rape" when they regret their sexual encounters and/or have a grudge against a fellow student and are using the campus judicial process to get him (usually this is in reference to heterosexual encounters when the man is the accused and the woman the victim) expelled.

We need better numbers to stop this discourse because, as those of us involved in the study of and activism around this issue know, the number is likely higher because of underreporting. The many stories that have emerged from the movement illustrate why people do not report sexual assaults. The questions about why victims don't just go to the police ignore both the poor treatment victims receive in the system including the difficulty in prosecuting rape cases. But as we have unfortunately seen, the campus judicial system is often failing these victims, too. The movement may be bringing these injustices to light, but it is hard to say if reporting will increase or decrease because of it. I would like to believe that more people would come forward to report sexual assault, but it likely depends on the campus environment and the history of the institution in its handling of cases. 

This brings me to the second angle of the editorial: the reporting of sexual assaults that colleges and universities are required to do under the Clery Act. All campus crimes must be reported but it seems that sexual assaults have been the most controversial because schools have been underreporting them. Some of the nearly 100 schools under investigation for Title IX violations in relation to the handling of sexual assault are also facing Clery Act violations.

Here is what I did not know about Clery Act reporting that the editorial shed light on:
"When the Department of Education audits universities for possible Clery Act violations, reports of sexual assault rise dramatically, by approximately 44 percent; when the period of scrutiny ends, reporting rates fall right back to pre-audit levels."

This was evidence of a study that looked at data from 2001-2012 during which time the government conducted over 30 Clery Act audits.

This is disturbing. There have long been calls for putting some teeth into Title IX as it applies to sexual assault and Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights in the Department of Education Catherine Lhamon promised that the department would indeed pull federal funding from offending schools. Tht has not happened yet.

Clery Act violators, though, already incur fines. Unfortunately they do not seem, based on the above data, to be much of a deterrent. This is from a 2014 Inside Higher Ed article about Clery Act violators and their punishments:
"In spite of that increased scrutiny, colleges facing penalties have continued to be successful in getting their Clery Act fines reduced, according to data provided by the Education Department.
Far more often than not, colleges are able to either persuade officials to lower the fines or enter into a settlement through which they pay a lower amount than the department had originally proposed. Of the 21 Clery Act fines that have actually been imposed on colleges since 2000, 17 have been lower than the department initially proposed, the agency’s data show.
Among those institutions successful in winning a discount on their fines, the average reduction was more than 25 percent and usually represented tens of thousands of dollars. The largest discount, proportionally speaking, was a $110,000 fine that the department proposed against Pittsburgh Technical Institute in 2005; the for-profit institution based in Oakdale, Pa., was ultimately fined half that amount, $55,000, in 2007."

This is a bad--as in ineffective--precedent and does not bode well for putting some force behind Title IX compliance either.