Campus Sex Assault Report Gap Highlights Weakness Of Federal Law

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Federal crime statistics show Grand Valley State University had 25 sex assaults in 2015. Yet the on-campus Women’s Center said it worked with student victims who reported 42 sex assaults.

This gap in the numbers is because the Women’s Center has a larger purview when it comes to handling sex assaults being reported by students. The center helps some students whose assaults can’t be included in GVSU’s annual crime statistics, because of strict rules on what can be reported to the federal government.

Critics say this highlights a weakness in the federal law that mandates campus crime be publicly reported.

“You don’t look at the number (of crimes on campus security) reports to assess the danger on the campus because the reports do not capture the full range of what’s going on,” said Nancy Chi Cantalupo, an expert on gender-based violence in education. The law professor at Barry University has consulted with the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

Cantalupo says students and their families should not base a university’s safety on its annual crime statistics because those numbers don’t give a clear picture of campus crime. They could give people a false sense of security.

A college’s annual crime numbers are required to be public because of the Clery Act, a federal law that’s been credited for raising awareness about sexual violence on campuses. It’s named after Jeanne Ann Clery, who was raped and strangled as a freshman at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania in 1986.

The gap in GVSU’s sex assault numbers is an example of what’s been called a nationwide discrepancy. If the Clery Act is showing only a portion of the sex assaults being reported on college campuses, how much good is it doing?

“The Clery Act has done some good work and is well-intentioned, but it is undermined in its effectiveness in terms of the reporting, undermined by the fact that there is a high rate of violence for rapes and low reporting,” Cantalupo said.

Her assessment comes amid complaints across the U.S. that Clery underrepresents campus crime numbers. Critics cite its limitations under the law – the geographic boundaries it sets for which on- and off-campus (building or property) crimes can be included in annual reports – the definitions of what sex offenses can make the list, or inadvertent or intentional underreporting to protect a school’s image.

Also, there are certain pastoral and school counselors who are exempt from having to report an assault under the Clery Act.


Some critics of the Clery Act say more can be done to track sex assaults on college campuses – especially in this digital age.

Cantalupo would like to see Clery add a mandatory “climate survey” on campus sexual violence and other violence.

She said a confidential, anonymous survey could be designed to determine the frequency of sexual violence without victims having to come forward to report to the police or a campus group.

“What we know from the statistics, and these are consistent over 30 years, is nationally there are very high rates of sexual violence on campuses,” she said.

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