Student Sexual Assault Victims Are Less Likely To Report Their Attacks Than Non-Students, The DOJ Finds

The responsibility of a college student should be to grow and to learn — not to expect to become a victim of sexual assault. And yet, as recent incidents have shown, college-aged women are at the highest risk for suffering such a heinous crime, and worse yet, student victims of rape are less likely to report their attacks than non-students. According to a new report released Thursday by the Department of Justice, only 20 percent of sexual assaults suffered by female college and university students are reported to the police. On the other hand, 32 percent of non-student women in the same age group came forward to authorities with their stories.

While the report found that non-students were actually more likely to be attacked than women enrolled in school (1.2 times more likely, to be exact), women in the 18 to 24 age range were three times more likely as a whole to be attacked than women between the ages of 12 and 17 and women older than 25. Worse yet, college students were twice as likely as non-students to say that the crime "was not important enough to report," reflecting a pervasive and insidious trend across college campuses that seems to downplay the severity of the crime, continues to send survivors into the shadows. The Rolling Stone debacle of the UVA story, while first and foremost an example of irresponsible journalism, has also highlighted a societal tendency to point fingers at survivors and cast doubt before all else.

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Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education began a series of Title IX investigations at a number of institutions across the country as a result of student accusations of improper handling of their sexual assault by campus administrators. And it seems that the general unwillingness amongst female students to report their attacks may be yet another sign of the lack of support provided by colleges and universities at large.

Students were also more likely to be attacked away from their homes — the study found that 51 percent of assaults happened to students while they were "pursuing leisure activities away from home," whereas around 50 percent of non-students were assaulted when "engaged in other activities at home."

According to the report, about one in four women, both students and non-students, decided not to report because the incident was deemed a personal matter. One in five women, on the other hand, stayed silent because they were afraid of repercussions, while others still thought that reporting the crime would be a fruitless endeavor, as the police would be unable to help their situation. All in all, this points to a general feeling amongst survivors that they are, ultimately, alone in their plights, and unable to depend upon the legal system to adequately protect them or address their attacks. As Laura Dunn, founder of SurvJustice, told the Christian Science Monitor, American women are in desperate need of a sign from both society and the legal system that these crimes do matter, and that they are truly unacceptable.

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The vast majority, 80 percent, of these crimes were committed by acquaintances of their victims, students and non-students alike. But Dunn notes that historically speaking, "prosecutors have been more willing to go after rape committed by strangers." Moreover, Dunn points out that rapes with weapons are also given higher priority, and while the DOJ study found that 10 percent of the attacks committed between 1995 and 2013 did involve a weapon, this still leaves the overwhelming remainder of rapes as somehow less desirable by prosecutors.

With 80 percent of rapes that happen on college campuses going unreported, this study underscores the distinct necessity of a solution to a horrific problem. Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network in Washington, told Businessweek that a number of factors may play into the low reporting rates, citing "counsel [students] get from staff" as a possible explanation. But the DOJ's report found that only 18 percent of non-students and even fewer students (16 percent) seek and acquire assistance from a victim-service agency. In a statement, Berkowitz noted that this finding "underscores that we need to ensure that victim support services are available for all."

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While most institutions have separate processes for dealing with sexual assault on campus, many have begun to note the shortcomings of a campus "legal system" — as Berkowitz said, "...we need to be honest and upfront with victims that those systems are not a substitute for the criminal justice system." More and more, it seems, police are being left out of the conversation when it comes to these assaults, and while the choice of reporting should always be the survivor's to make, it is also imperative that a full range of options are made available. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) suggested that police have become "marginalized" when it comes to rape on college campuses. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) concurred, saying the report "lays bare the unique challenges at our colleges and universities that discourage reporting."

The bottom line, however, is that rape is not a survivor's problem, but rather a perpetrator's problem. Reports like the DOJ's are helpful, but there must also be a proactive response to stop assaults, regardless of where or who they happen to before they ever begin. As Laura Dunn told the Christian Science Monitor, "anytime you are only studying victimization and not perpetration, you are limited in your ability to be helpful in truly solving this problem."

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