Universities Under-Report On-Campus Sexual Assaults

How The New School Handles On-Campus Sexual Assault
Thursday, April 21st, 2011

When a dorm resident reports a sexual assault, the resident adviser is required to file an official report with the resident hall director. The report is then forwarded to the housing office, which in turn submits it to the office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. Student Rights and Responsibilities forwards reports to security, which is responsible for submitting statistics to the government

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On April 4, the Obama administration introduced comprehensive guidelines to help colleges and universities do a better job of preventing and responding to on-campus sexual assault. Roughly one in five women who attend college will become the victim of rape or attempted rape by the time she graduates, according to a Department of Justice study cited in the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights letter released with the new federal instructions.

Universities across the country are struggling with how to handle accusations of sexual assault on campuses — from protecting students and punishing perpetrators to adhering to federal standards for reporting on-campus crime statistics. The Free Press has devoted six months to a review of how this university is faring in this fraught landscape. Our reporting has included an examination of the university’s internal Public Crime Log and its federal Campus Crime Statistics report, as well as more than a dozen interviews with past and present resident advisors, administrators, students, national experts and public officials.

The Free Press examined The New School’s internal Public Crime Log and its federally mandated Campus Crime Statistics report several months ago and noticed a discrepancy between the Crime Log, which included a report of a forcible sexual assault occurring in 2009, and the Campus Crime Statistics Report, which reported zero for the same year.

“We are aware of one student complaint that was not included in the 2009 crime statistics reported under Clery Act guidelines,” wrote Peter Taback, senior director of communications for The New School, in an April 1 email to the Free Press.

The Jeanne Clery Act of 1990, named after the 19-year-old Lehigh University student who was raped and murdered in her dorm room in 1986, is a federal law that requires all colleges and universities receiving federal financial aid to report campus crime statistics to the Department of Education every year, send out campus-wide alerts whenever a crime is reported (even if the accusation is never confirmed), and keep a crime log of all reported incidents available for public record. The government can fine schools that violate the Clery Act up to $27,000 and even revoke eligibility for federal financial aid programs.

Tom Iliceto, The New School’s director of security, said that the university is in the process of correcting the error. “We’ve been in touch with the Department of Education and we’re able to correct the records and rectify the situation,” he said in an interview with the Free Press. “That will keep us in compliance with the Clery Act.” As of press time, the Department of Education could not confirm that The New School had filed an amended Crime Statistics Report, but did confirm that schools are allowed to amend reports and avoid fines.

However, a leading expert on the Clery Act says that whether or not the error is eventually corrected, failure to file an accurate report can be grounds for the Department of Education to find an institution to be in violation of the law.

“If an institution reports incorrect statistics, whether it’s deliberately or inadvertently, they are in violation of the Clery Act,” said S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security on Campus, a national watchdog organization founded by Jeanne Clery’s parents to advocate student safety.

Carter also specified that before any penalties can be imposed, an institution must be investigated and formally found to be in violation of the Clery Act. “Just like someone has to be convicted in court before they can be said authoritatively to have violated the law,” he said. Carter added that it is not likely that an institution will be fined if they are the ones to find an error in their reports and take the necessary measures to correct it. “The Department of Education exercises discretion on such matters,” he said.

While The New School reports that it is in the process of correcting the discrepancy in the 2009 reports, the error raises questions about how the university handles accusations of sexual assault — from meeting Clery Act reporting standards to providing victims with a sense that the university is advocating on their behalf and taking adequate measures to protect them. It is also raises the question of why the university’s reported numbers are so low.

According to the Campus Crime Statistics Report filed with the Department of Education, not a single sexual assault has occurred in any of The New School’s campus buildings since 2007, including the five current co-ed dorms and the two that have closed in recent years. When presented with The New School’s low number of reported assaults, student activists and national experts in the prevention of sexual assault expressed skepticism and pointed to a national trend of under-reporting.

Sarah Martino, spokesperson for Students Active For Ending Rape, a volunteer collective that works with student groups across the country to reform their schools’ sexual assault policies, offered a blunt assessment of The New School’s reported federal crime statistics.

“[Numbers this low are] generally recognized by people in this field as being an incredibly unrealistic representation of actual levels of sexual assault on campus,” Martino said.

According to the United States Department of Justice’s National College Women Sexual Victimization study, one in five young women experiences rape during college. The New School has a student body of nearly 10,000 students, with approximately 1,680 living in dorms.

“If an institution is reporting 20 or 30 assaults a year, to me that isn’t necessarily a red flag,” said Alison Kiss, executive director of Security On Campus. “It means that the campus does not have a culture of silence; it’s an open environment where students are comfortable reporting that they’ve been a victim.”

In the fall semester of 2009, a resident of a New School dorm told her resident advisor (RA) that another resident had raped her in his suite after a night of drinking. The RA, who spoke on condition of anonymity because RAs can be fired for discussing such incidents publicly, filed an official report with the residence hall director (RHD), who repeatedly declined to comment for this article.

Because incident reports are confidential as required by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and the Crime Log and Statistics Report do not include names of victims or perpetrators, it is impossible to confirm that this is the incident reflected in the 2009 Crime Log, and which The New School is currently attempting to add to the Crime Statistics Report. However, it appears to be the same incident, as it occurred the same day and was officially reported one month later, as was the one in the Log. The Free Press is operating under the impression that the incident reported by the RA is, in fact, the one missing from the Crime Statistics Report.

In the internal Crime Log, the incident is listed as “CLEARED.” According to Carter, of the watchdog organization Security on Campus, the term “CLEARED” means, “It is no longer an active investigation.” He said that it could mean several things: that disciplinary action has been carried out, that the school has determined that they will be unable to apprehend the suspect, or that they have dropped the charges. The accused student told the Free Press that the charges against him were dropped for lack of sufficient evidence — a claim the university could not confirm due to confidentiality laws.  “Nothing was done, and it became a he-said-she-said case,” the accuser wrote in an April 20 email to the Free Press.

Representatives of The New School’s housing office interviewed the victim, the alleged perpetrator, and his roommates, but in the end the university took no disciplinary action against the accused. “I personally feel like they did [do their job],” said the accused.

As for the alleged victim, she was offered the option of moving. “They did suggest that I switch dorms, or rooms,” she wrote in the April 20 email to the Free Press.

In the end, the student who reported the alleged assault left The New School and New York. “She was just traumatized,” said the RA involved in the case, “because she came forward and nothing happened.”

The accused’s former roommate told the Free Press that he was friends with the alleged victim before the investigation. “She basically shut everything off and cut off communication,” he said, referring to her behavior during and after the investigation.

“This was one of the reasons why I left [the university]” the accuser said. “I feel that the school did a terrible job of handling the situation.”

Taback and Iliceto said that confidentiality restrictions prevent them from commenting on any incident of this nature or its resolution. Gene Puno-De Leon, director of student rights and responsibilities, and Tom McDonald, assistant vice president for student and campus life, could not be reached for comment on this incident.

The Free Press contacted 13 other current and former RAs from various dorms to ask whether they had ever dealt with reports of sexual assault in the dorms. Three declined to comment, saying they could lose their jobs if they did. Five said they had never dealt with sexual assault either directly or indirectly. The remaining five said that they had never filed a report, but knew of other RAs who had.

As of press time two of The New School’s five current RHDs and area coordinators declined to comment; one said no RAs had ever come to him with reports of sexual assault, and the other two could not be reached.

According to Iliceto, when a dorm resident reports an assault to an RA, the RA is required to submit a written incident report to his or her resident hall director. The RHD must then pass the report on to The New School’s housing office, which in turn submits it to the office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. Student Rights and Responsibilities forwards the report to the office of security, the department responsible for tallying The New School’s Clery Act crime statistics and submitting them to the federal government at the end of each calendar year.

Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the updated guidelines for preventing and responding to sexual assault on college campuses. In the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ corresponding letter, a rare national federal instruction known as a “Dear Colleague” letter, the government instructed colleges and universities that, “a school must take prompt and effective steps to end the sexual violence, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects, whether or not the sexual violence is the subject of a criminal investigation.”

The DOE letter acknowledged the fact that “acts of sexual violence [on campus] are vastly under-reported” and urged universities to enforce and investigate all reported incidents of sexual misconduct.

“We are working to ensure that officials most likely to receive reports of sexual assault report that information to the appropriate offices that provide support and are responsible for maintaining the relevant statistics,” said Iliceto in an April 18 email to the Free Press. “We are revising the sexual assault policy to clearly describe what constitutes sexual violence including sexual assault.”

The same challenges plague universities across the country.

In March, at Dickinson College in Carlyle, Pennsylvania, students occupied an administrative building and marched on campus for three days, demanding changes to their institution’s procedures for dealing with sexual misconduct. The protesters found it hard to believe that their school of nearly 2,400 students had accounted for only five forcible sexual assaults having occurred on campus in 2009.

Earlier this month, the Department of Education began an investigation into Yale University for allegedly mishandling several instances of sexual misconduct on campus in recent years.

In October, Marshall University became the subject of federal scrutiny after the school’s student newspaper, The Parthenon, uncovered alleged wrongdoing under Clery Act provisions. The Department of Education is still investigating the matter.

Last December, Congress introduced the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which would update certain provisions in the Clery Act and look to further enforce protections against sexual assault on campus. The new law would also expand on awareness and educational programs already offered under the Clery Act.

- additional reporting by Aidan Gardiner, News Editor


Excellent reporting/research.

Excellent reporting/research. Thank you for covering this. -S