Campus Sexual Assault Can Occur Long Before College, And It's Time We Talked About It

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The typical conversation about campus sexual assault centers around universities — the presence of rape culture in academia and the institutions that sometimes fail to support their students in the aftermath. A new report from the Associated Press (AP), however, makes it clear that college students aren't the only ones affected by peer-on-peer sexual assault. It's something experienced by children in primary and secondary schools as well.

Using state education records and federal crime data, an AP investigation found that approximately 17,000 cases of sexual assault were officially reported between 2011 and 2015. Although teacher-student assault is an all too common story, these reports were of a different nature: students who assaulted other students. According to the report, the incidents ranged from nonconsensual fondling, which was experienced by 80 percent of victims, to penetration. Girls were far more likely to be assaulted than boys, accounting for more than 85 percent of victims. When they were assaulted, the report found that the offender was almost always a boy.

Overall, about five percent of the reports involved five- or six-year-olds, but that number skyrocketed around the age of ten. It continued to increase until victims were 14 years old, then slowly decreased over the course of high school. In short, middle school appeared to be the peak time for peer-on-peer sexual violence.

According to the report, children are most commonly assaulted by other children at home, but school was the second most common environment. However, the AP found that sexual violence was commonly categorized as bullying or hazing, and families tended to face legal obstacles if they attempted to sue the school district afterward.

The AP notes that these statistics paint as accurate a picture as possible, but as always, it's important to keep in mind that many assaults go unreported. Furthermore, some states don't actually track sexual violence in schools, and those that do tend to differ in their definitions of what constitutes assault. "A number of academic estimates range sharply higher," wrote the authors.

Problems like bullying and gun violence in schools receive massive amounts of attention, and for good reason — these are pressing issues that must be resolved. On the other hand, characterizing sexual assault as exclusively an adult issue leaves students vulnerable. For one thing, it creates a misconception that children and teenagers don't assault one another, which is clearly untrue. In fact, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 23 percent of reported child sexual abuse was perpetrated by people under the age of 18 themselves.

Furthermore, although the issues are intertwined, lumping sexual violence in with bullying creates a pattern similar to the one that plays out in sexual assault on college campuses. Victims may be afraid their assault will be minimized, and even if they do file a report, it may not lead to serious consequences — for the offender, that is. Earlier this month, the National Women's Law Center named sexual violence as one of the factors pushing girls out of school. Bullying has also been linked to sexual harassment later in life, adding to the long list of reasons to take assaults by students seriously.

As the AP's report points out, colleges are required to report sexual assault (and other on-campus crimes), so logically, the same standards should apply to primary and secondary schools. It's long past time peer-on-peer sexual violence was taken seriously. There's no easy solution here, but acknowledging the problem is a start.