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Three things you might not know about sexual assault on campus

Maybe you've heard 1 in 5 college women will be assaulted. Here's what you don't know about campus assaults.

Ok, first, the stats. 

The bad news: the problem is rampant

For every 10,000 women on a college campus, as many as 350 could experience attempted to completed rape every school year. 

Those numbers come from the U.S. Department of Justice, in a 2005 report on what schools are doing about sexual assault on campus. 

If those stats bear out, then at a school the size of the University of Michigan, as many as 490 women will experience attempted or completed rape every school year.

More broadly, 1 in 5 women will be assaulted, but just 12% of them report it.

At a school the size of the University of Michigan, up to 490 women will experience attempted or completed rape every school year.

In fact, women are more likely to be assaulted if they're a college student than if they're in the military. 

Both those last stats come from the White House, which put outa report about rape in January, just as President Obama kicked off a new task force on the issue.  


Campus rapes have been all over the news in recent years.

Between the accusations against Heisman winner Jameis Winston at Florida State University, to alleged administrative foot-dragging at the University of Southern California, to complaints that  theUniversity of Michigan didn't sever ties with football player Brendan Gibbons for years after he was accused of  rape, there's little question that schools could do better when it comes to sexual assault.  

Michigan survey says 83% of schools need help sanctioning sexual misconduct

Right now, both the University of Michigan and Michigan State University are under federal investigation for complaints they mishandled sexual misconduct.  

So there were a few eyebrows raised this week when the University of Michigan sent out findings to the press from its recent national survey, looking at how schools are handling sexual misconduct. 

"We finished the survey January 3, and we presented the findings [to the academic community] on January 6," says Jay Wilgus, director of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution at the University of Michigan.

"We've had researchers from around the country request the results. They're being released because we believe they're important to the dialogue. They have nothing to do with our campus investigation at all," he said.  

Bottom line: 80% of schools said they dealt with sexual misconduct issues last year. But they would really, really like some help with it. 

Here's what may surprise you about what they found. 

1) "Sexual misconduct" is not just rape. It could be a rude Facebook comment or a pat on the butt during football practice.

One of the first things I asked Wilgus boiled down to: why the heck do schools need help figuring out how to punish sexual misconduct? If someone rapes another student, expel them, right? It shouldn't be that complicated, unless schools are dancing around the issue. 

Well, no, says Wilgus. 

First off, he says there really isn't a generally accepted definition of what exactly is "sexual misconduct."

"If it's a onetime Facebook message, I don't think most folks would think that student should be expelled for that behavior."

But it's usually a catch-all for anything from sexual online messages to unwanted pats on the butt at practice. 

Which, he says, is why schools need help figuring out how to sanction offenders.  

"If it's a onetime Facebook message, we look into that, that's an issue for us. But I don't think most folks would think, in that situation, 'oh that student should be expelled for that behavior.'

"Certainly, in the most egregious cases, I don't think schools are confused about what needs to happen. My perception is it's the other cases where schools are looking for evidence-based practices to guide their decision-making about sanctions," says Wilgus. "We want to know that what we're doing is effective, and I think that's what other schools want as well."

2) Mandatory punishment for offenders could backfire, hurt victims

OK, so colleges want help, or to be more specific, "national guidelines or model policies for sanctioning students who are found responsible for sexual misconduct," according to the U of M study.

But 83% also said that "national mandates were not desirable."

"Where schools have used an automatic expulsion provision, it can have the unintended consequence of reducing reporting rates."

Which is understandable. Except, what's wrong with a very basic mandate, like: if a student rapes another student, the offender gets kicked out?

Again, says Wilgus, it's more complicated than that.

"Where schools have used an automatic expulsion provision, it can have the unintended consequence of reducing reporting rates," he says. 

That's because most sexual misconduct incidents happen between people who know each other, says Wilgus. 

And if you think your boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, friend, whatever, is going to be kicked out if you say something, you may be less likely to report harassment, he says. 

Overall, though, it does look like University of Michigan students may be more comfortable coming forward with assaults, according to the school's own explanation for why there's a rising number of assaults reported at Michigan. 


3) Most schools never check to see if the victim drops out, or if the attacker strikes again on campus.

The survey found that fewer than 1 in 3 schools track students accused of misconduct  to see if they "engage if further sexual behavior problems" on campus. 

That's despite the fact that, as the White House reported, "one study found that 7% of college men admitted to committing rape or attempted rape, and 63% of these men admitted to committing multiple offenses, averaging six rapes each."

And fewer than 1 in 4 colleges actually follow up with victims to see if they stayed in school or  graduated, the survey found. 

Yet it's widely known that sexual assault victims can experience PTSD, depression, suicidal thoughts, etc. 

Wilgus says: yeah, it's not great. 

"I think these are really important findings, because one of the things we know happens when a student reports sexual misconduct, it's not uncommon for students not to persist through graduation.

"So we really need to be tracking students to make sure they're doing well. And I think another important takeaway, and I'm speculating here a little bit, that schools need support and resources to do this work really well.

"We're very fortunate at Michigan, but not all schools have that office or that support mechanism. So why aren't they tracking through [graduation?] We need to learn more," says Wilgus. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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