Last week’s news that forcible sex offenses reported at Columbia had quadrupled from the previous year elicited confused reactions. Why had it gone up? What does it say that the number is the second-lowest in the Ivy League?
As administrators and student leaders point out, that statistic isn’t the full story.
According to the report, which was released by Public Safety, Columbia reported three forcible sex offenses in 2011, and 12 in 2012.
Only two other Ivies have reported 2012 data so far, but Cornell showed five and Harvard reported 31 offenses—numbers that are consistent with the schools’ past statistics.
During the period from 2008 to 2011, Columbia had the second-lowest number of sexual assaults with 26, just above Cornell at 19. Harvard, Princeton, and Dartmouth reported the most, with 84, 58, and 56 forcible sex offenses respectively.
But while rising numbers of sex offenses on campus is troubling, it is almost impossible to draw conclusions from these statistics because most sexual assaults are not reported.
“The numbers overall just really make me overwhelmingly sad,” said Alice Griffin, BC ’15 and a co-coordinator of Columbia’s Take Back the Night group, a student organization dedicated to creating a safe space for sexual assault survivors and promoting discussion about sexual violence on college campuses.
The Department of Justice estimates that 20 to 25 percent of women will experience a rape or attempted rape during their college years, but fewer than half of these women will ever report the incident.
Another frequently cited DOJ study estimates that 95 percent of college rapes go unreported. A Princeton survey from 2008, which was leaked in the spring, showed that one in six female respondents had experienced a rape while at the university.
No other school in the Ivy League—including Columbia—has released information like that shown in the Princeton survey. The fact that sexual assault statistics remain so murky is indicative of a larger stigma surrounding the issue.
Zelda Wanstok, BC ’16 and the other co-coordinator of Take Back the Night, said she was upset but not surprised by Columbia’s statistics.
“Most people don’t report for many reasons,” Wanstok said. “It’s hard to say if the jump is a jump in actual numbers or a jump in reporting.”
Vice President for Public Safety James McShane attributes the rise in Columbia’s reported sex offenses to two factors.
One reason for the increase is “an increase in the number of reports of ‘forcible fondling,’ which is the touching of the private body parts of another person,” McShane said in an email.
The University defines forcible sexual offenses as “any sexual act directed against another person, forcibly and/or against that person’s will; or not forcibly or against the person’s will where the victim is incapable of giving consent.”
“Forcible fondling” is a definition included in the category of “forcible sex offenses,” but the report does not show numbers for specific types of offense. Columbia’s definitions are taken from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook as mandated by the Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges to publish data on reported campus crimes.
Secondly, McShane attributed the change in statistics to the University’s expanded sexual assault policies over the past few years.
“The increase is also likely associated with enhanced outreach and training around Title IX—consistent with the University’s commitment to addressing gender-based discrimination and harassment—which typically results in an increase in the number of people reporting this type of sexual offense,” McShane said.
In 2011, President Barack Obama, CC ’83, outlined the requirements that university sexual assault policies must meet in order to receive Title IX funding. Following those guidelines, Columbia and many other schools revamped their policies.
Columbia expanded its grievance procedures to include five categories of behavior instead of just “sexual assault.” The University also hired a Title IX investigator, Rosalie Siler, to oversee all investigations into reported incidents of gender-based and sexual misconduct.
In less formal arenas, Columbia’s campus boasts many feminist, sexual health, and sexual violence advocacy groups. The annual Take Back the Night march is a campus tradition and one of the community’s larger events each spring. The student group FemSex is in its fifth semester at Columbia, and the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center moved into a big new office last semester.
But Columbia’s numbers still appear to be underreported—even with the jump, they are far below a realistic level for a school with more than 10,000 undergraduates alone.
“Going to college, your whole life is in one very closed-in space. Your classes, your clubs, where you live, everything is very interconnected,” Wanstok said. “If [an attacker is] someone at your school, in that environment, it’s very hard to report because everything is interconnected, and it makes everything way more complicated.”
Griffin also said that while the Title IX requirements are intended to improve sexual assault policies, some of the changes they produce can be confusing for survivors of sexual assault. Most notable is the mandatory reporter rule, which expanded the number of people on campus who are required to report incidents to the Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct office even if the student involved does not want to take action.
Columbia Health Services does distribute flyers identifying confidential sources and sources who are mandatory reporters.
“I think a lot of people are still surprised that their RAs are mandatory reporters,” Griffin said. “It’s like ‘Oh, if my friend is an RA, are they still a mandatory reporter?’ I think that’s a little confusing, but it’s important for that to be clear” that they are a mandatory reporter.
Both Wanstok and Griffin said they still know many students who are not aware of Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct.
“It makes me think more about the purpose of Take Back the Night as raising awareness of sexual assault,” Griffin said.