Understanding the Threat of Sexual Violence on College Campuses

January 25, 2016

Courtesy of Vanita Gupta, Head of the Civil Rights Division

A new Justice Department report released last week provides valuable guidance and instructive insights to help us better understand the threat of sexual violence on college campuses.  Released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and funded by the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), the report includes a Campus Climate Survey Validation Study (CCSVS), which employed behaviorally-specific questions to survey thousands of students across nine schools.

The figures highlighted in the pilot survey portray a disturbing, but not surprising, picture.  President Obama has rightfully described sexual assault as “an affront to our basic decency and humanity.”  Two years ago, he launched the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which highlighted the important role of campus climate surveys to identify troubling trends and implement effective solutions.  And through guidance, outreach and enforcement, this administration has prioritized its response to the heinous crime of sexual assault.

In the Civil Rights Division, we continue to help play a leadership role in this administration-wide effort by enforcing Title IX to ensure that colleges and universities receiving federal funding protect students from sexual assault before it occurs, guarantee a fair and equitable investigative process for all parties and support victims during the investigation and resolution of complaints.  We also enforce the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and the anti-discrimination provisions of the Safe Streets Act to promote effective, non-discriminatory, and constitutional policing practices – and to provide community support for victims and law enforcement officers.

Our work in Missoula, Montana presents an important example of both the complex challenges we face and the collaborative solutions we need to keep our communities and our campuses safe from sexual violence.  In 2013, a Justice Department investigation found that the state university, campus police, local police department and county attorney’s office had fallen short of their legal responsibilities in responding to sexual assault complaints.  As a result of our investigation, we reached four agreements centered on reforming the Missoula community’s collective response process.  Both the campus and city police adopted a series of critical reforms.  Through specialized training, clearer policies, enhanced data collection and external review panels, law enforcement in Missoula and the University of Montana have demonstrated the dramatic reform that can result when authorities inform community members and coordinate their response activities.

But to maximize the impact of our efforts, we recognize the critical role of accurate and comprehensive data to shape our approach.  And last week’s report provides a valuable model that campuses can replicate and customize on their own – along with a series of best practices – to help schools and researchers design and implement climate surveys.

Victims of sexual assault often suffer physical and emotional trauma that can linger for years and stretch into nearly every area of their lives.  In the new campus climate survey, we found that 19 percent of female rape victims dropped or considered dropping classes, 7 percent changed where they lived, 31 percent said their academic performance suffered and 22 percent considered taking time off or dropping out of school.

The survey also found that freshmen female students faced the greatest risk during the first few months of the academic year.  With students reporting a particularly high number of assaults in August, it highlights the urgent need to educate students with effective prevention training about sexual assault, consent, bystander intervention and available resources before classes even begin.  And as we know all too well in sexual assault cases – and as our report confirmed once again – few victims report sexual assaults.  Across nine schools, students reported only about 13 percent of rape incidents and 5 percent of sexual battery incidents to a school, campus police or local law enforcement official.

Beyond the specific numbers, however, this report underscores a critical part of the Justice Department’s approach to addressing sexual assault.  Ultimately, meaningful reform must take shape at the local level, driven by customized solutions that address the unique challenges facing each community and each campus.  Advancing that kind of reform requires fully understanding the problem.  And campus climate surveys can play a key role in setting us on the right path. 

Updated January 25, 2016