Recent AAUW Report Undermines The Campus Sexual Assault Narrative

Christopher Perry Deputy executive director of Stop Abusive and Violent Environments
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Anyone who has followed the campus sexual assault debate over the last decade has heard advocates, politicians, and reporters throwing around the disconcerting statistic that 1-in-5 women will be the victim of sexual assault while in college.  The number is jarring…but is it truthful?

The federal Clery Act mandates that schools track and disclose reported incidents of campus sexual assault. A national crime victimization survey found that 65% of victims of sexual offenses do not report the assault. Currently, 12.7 million women are enrolled in American degree-granting colleges. Even with this underreporting problem, if 20% of college women were victims of sexual assault, one would expect to see large numbers of sexual assaults being reported to school officials.

Recently the American Association of University Women (AAUW) completed a review of the 2015 Clery data, which was compiled from all 11,000 college campuses across the nation. The title of the report highlights its most important finding:  “89 Percent of Colleges Reported Zero Incidents of Rape in 2015.” This is not a typo. The AAUW’s report states without qualification that at nearly nine out of 10 campuses, not a single rape was reported to campus officials.

This stunning conclusion contradicts one of the main justifications for the Department of Education’s 2011 Dear Colleague Letter mandating that all allegations of sexual assault be heard by campus rape committees. Advocates claimed the expedited campus procedures would make it easier for identified victims to step forward and report the assault.

As a result of this federal mandate, campus investigators adopted the “believe the victim” approach which eliminates the presumption of innocence, disciplinary committees instituted the preponderance of evidence (“50 percent and a feather”) standard, and colleges removed a host of due process protections that most Americans take for granted.

Six years later, it now appears the Department of Education edict has had the opposite of its intended effect. A recent Special Report by Stop Abusive and Violent Environments documents how this experiment in campus jurisprudence has turned out to be a Kafkaesque nightmare for both identified victims and accused students.

Both parties want to see investigations performed in a thorough and objective way, adjudications conducted in a reliable manner, and sanctions imposed that are appropriate to the severity of the offense. But a perfect storm of inept personnel, administrative pressures to sweep complaints under the rug, and countervailing pressures to dodge a lengthy federal investigation has led to colleges to establish peoples’ courts that threaten to give kangaroos a bad name.

The SAVE Special Report details numerous cases that put a face to the injustices of the campus rape tribunals. One identified victim from University of Alabama – Birmingham was quoted as saying, ‘The assault was bad, but the way my school treated me has created more trauma than the original assault did.’ Another student at University of Wisconsin – Whitewater stated, “I don’t think anybody should be treated the way that I was. It was worse than the assault, a lot worse. I regret with everything, coming forward and saying anything.”

As a result, the federal Office for Civil Rights saw a six-fold increase from 2010 – 2014 in the number of sex-related (Title IX) complaints, the vast majority of which came from identified victims. Likewise, accused students have filed hundreds of lawsuits alleging violations of rudimentary notions of procedural fairness, often compelling federal judges to issue sharply worded opinions critical of the college procedures.

Attempting to present its findings in the best possible light, the AAUW report concludes, “some schools have built the necessary systems to welcome and handle reports, support survivors, and disclose accurate statistics — and others have not.”

But given the dangers of losing federal funding after an Office for Civil Rights investigation, the costs of defending a Title IX lawsuit, and the glare of negative media coverage, it is unlikely that nearly 10,000 institutions across the nation would routinely disregard credible reports of sexual offenses. Does the AAUW really believe that nearly nine out of ten colleges still have not “built the necessary systems” to handle reports, support survivors, and disclose accurate statistics?

The current federal regime was established on the assumption that a campus “rape culture” permeates higher education.  We were told that under the new federal mandate, that reporting would increase, offenders would be removed, and female students would feel safer.

Instead, the recent Clery numbers show that the vast majority of institutions are not caught in the throes of an epidemic of sexual assault. Instead, identified victims have become disillusioned with and lost confidence in the regime thrust upon them by the federal Department of Education. Not surprisingly, they have stopped reporting their assaults to campus officials.

Christopher Perry is the deputy executive director of Stop Abusive and Violent Environments.