- Amy Mackens/Daily
By Allana Akhtar, Summer Daily News Editor
Published July 9, 2014
According to a recent analysis done by the Washington Post on data from the U.S. Department of Education, the University of Michigan had 34 total reported instances of sexual assault last year — the second highest number in the nation.
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The University had 64 total recorded instances of sexual assault on campus from 2010 – 2012. There were 0.78 reported offenses per 1,000 students in 2012.
Of the nearly 1,570 colleges and universities listed, Pennsylvania State University had the highest number of reported sexual assaults with 56 in 2012. Harvard ranked third, behind the University, with 31.
In contrast, 45 percent of universities with enrollment of 1,000 or higher had 0 reported instances of sexual assault last year.
Over the past year, the University has been no stranger to scrutiny by both outside law enforcement and students over its handling of sexual assault allegations.
The Michigan Daily reported in January the permanent separation of Brendan Gibbons, a kicker for the University’s football team, from the University for sexual misconduct. Following a complaint filed by former University professor Doug Smith, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation on the University’s handling of the separation.
Central Student Government also commissioned a task force to review the circumstances surrounding the separation. The task force found the University responsible for mishandling Gibbons’ sexual misconduct case after two months of scrutiny.
Though high reporting rates, coupled with the allegations surrounding Gibbons’ separation could create an unfavorable perception of the University, Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, said she believes the rates are likely not different from other universities nationally. What’s different, she said, is the atmosphere around reporting incidents when they happen, making high reporting rates more of a positive than a negative.
“When I see those high reporting rates, I think to myself that’s one more student who has felt comfortable in sharing the feeling of harm and has connected to the spectrum of resources,” she said. “I am proud of the reporting rate that we have achieved.”
Recent changes to University sexual misconduct policy
In January 2014, the White House Council on Women and Girls published a sexual assault report entitled “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” that stated nearly 1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted while in college and 7 percent of college men admitted to committing rape or attempting rape. The data reveals that only 12 percent of student survivors report the assault to law enforcement.
To combat these statistics and others on sexual assault on campuses, the University began a 30-month long study on campus climate regarding sexual assault and new methods to prevent and respond to it for the purpose of revising the sexual misconduct policy at the University. The policy sets the University’s procedures for responding to sexual assault cases and issues on campus.
During an initial interim stage beginning in 2011, the directors of Office of Student Conflict Resolution, the Office of Institutional Equity, SAPAC and a staff member in the Office of the General Counsel gathered to review data and brainstorm new initiatives. Survivors of sexual assault and others impacted by the previous policy were also consulted.
Rider-Milkovich said the new policy respects the values and expectations of University staff, students and faculty.
“Unlike many campuses, the University of Michigan’s policies are unique to our needs and it’s unique to what we value,” she said. “It’s not an off the shelf product.”
The new University policy encourages any and all reporting of sexual misconduct, and gives faculty and administration a greater responsibility in investigating assault allegations. Two full-time investigators also work regularly on analyzing and studying sexual misconduct cases.
Since the implementation of the interim policy in 2011, the University has seen far greater reported instances of sexual assault — the number of reports in 2012 is more than double that of 2010.
SAPAC student director Kathryn Abercrombie attributed the spike of reported incidences to the policy change.
“We’ve seen the number of reports rise because there has been a different reporting process that make it easier for survivors to come forward,” Abercrombie said.
LSA senior Katelyn Maddock agreed. She lauded the University’s system of supporting sexual misconduct survivors and giving them the confidence to report crime.
“High reporting doesn’t really reflect that we have a problem,” Maddock said. “I think it does reflect that people are coming forward. We have a really good system in place.”
Reporting sexual assault across U.S. universities
In light of the White House report, the Obama administration created a task force to combat campus sexual assault as well as nation-wide sexual violence.
“To make our campuses safer, change still needs to come from many quarters: schools must adopt better policies and practices to prevent these crimes and to more effectively respond when they happen,” the report stated. “And federal agencies must ensure that schools are living up to their obligations.”
Federal law agencies took action again last May when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation on over 60 universities for possible violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 which prohibits gender-based discrimination in federally funded programs and organizations.
Among these schools is Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania. Penn State, like Michigan, received nation-wide scrutiny on its administration’s response to sexual assault following allegations of sexual abuse by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Although Penn State had the highest number of reported instances of sexual assault from 2010 to 2012, it also had the greatest rise of reported allegations in that time frame, from 4 reported assaults in 2010 to 56 in 2012.
Penn State has recently implemented several programs to aid students, faculty and staff in responding to and preventing sexual misconduct. These include self-defense courses, mass educational initiatives, open campus discussions and changes to police protocol.
Lisa Powers, director of the Office of Strategic Communications at Penn State, said the university takes the issue of sexual violence on campus very seriously and encourages open, national discussion on the issue. She added that she believes high rates of reported assault reflect survivor comfort with coming forward.
“We certainly believe training is effective, and we know that if more people are aware they are generally more likely to come forward and report,” she said. “That’s a good thing, since we know this is a crime that is vastly under-reported.”
Lisa Lapin, associate vice president of University Communications at Stanford University, which had the fifth highest number of reported sexual offenses in 2012, echoed similar attitudes toward reported assault.
“We consider the numbers actually a success, because underreporting is a chronic problem in all colleges and universities,” she said. “We look at the increase in our numbers to mean that our outreach programs are working and we’re helping people get access to the resources that they need.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Johns Hopkins University, which only had 6 total reported instances of sexual assault from 2010 to 2012, started taking steps to improve their sexual misconduct policy following the Department of Education’s mandate clarifying university’s active role in investigating allegations of sexual assault under Title IX, though the school isn’t currently under investigation.
Dennis O’Shea, executive director of Media Relations and Crisis Communications at Johns Hopkins University, said the university revised their sexual violence policy in December 2012. It has created a 24/7 crisis hotline for survivors of sexual assault to feel comfortable reporting attacks and hired a sexual violence prevention, education and response coordinator. They are working to reword their policy to make it more understandable to students.
Though O’Shea did not wish to comment on the low number of reported assaults, he said the school is in the process of forming a Sexual Violence Advisory Committee with students, faculty and staff to help the school address prevention and response.
“We’re in no way complacent,” he said. “There is more to do and we are determined to do it. We will live up to the standards we have set for ourselves.”
Though university spokespeople and federal researchers believe greater numbers of reported instances of assault is an improvement, it is still only part of the problem in combating occurring sexual assault across campuses.
For the University, Rider-Milkovich said it will take continuous, vigorous and community-wide effort to end instances of sexual assault on campus, both reported and not.
“We’re looking at the long horizon here,” she said. “Anytime you’re talking about shifting culture, you’re looking at a long horizon, but I think that Michigan has the infrastructure, the commitment, the expertise and the will to make that happen.”