This week’s results from climate surveys at 27 U.S. campuses, including UNC-Chapel Hill, show that universities have more to do to prevent sexual assaults and to properly handle the cases that do arise.
For the first time, UNC now has data on its campus problem. About 5,200 UNC students – 18 percent – answered a detailed questionnaire last spring, as part of the Association of American Universities’ first campus climate survey.
The statistics showed that 24.3 percent of female undergrads who responded to the survey experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact during their time at UNC, from kissing to sexual touching to penetration; 12.5 percent said they were penetrated by force or during incapacitation by alcohol.
Rates for unwanted sexual contact were much higher for gay students who responded (22.8 percent) than heterosexual students (11.5 percent) in the survey.
Sexual crimes rarely get reported to authorities, as the survey respondents confirmed. Fewer than a third of the women who suffered penetration by force reported the event to an agency or organization, and only 17 percent of women who were incapacitated at the time of assault made a report.
The survey also showed that students, particularly female students, had low expectations that a report would accomplish anything. Only 38 percent of female undergrads felt that campus officials would conduct a fair investigation, and only 26 percent thought the campus would take action against the offender.
Students also didn’t know how to help their friends. About half said they didn’t intervene when they saw a drunken person headed for a sexual encounter.
The AAU surveys provide an unusually extensive view of campus sexual assault, measuring both broad categories of offenses and specific behaviors. Duke University is a member of the AAU but did not take part in the survey. Spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said Duke is developing and testing its own survey that “will explore the issues and culture that are unique to Duke, and will use those results to inform and improve our programs.”
Some have criticized the AAU data, suggesting that low response rates could have skewed the results toward victims’ viewpoints. Still, the survey captures responses from 150,000 college students on the prevalence of sexual violence and harassment, perception of risk and awareness of university resources.
They were alarming to me, but they are not surprising to me.
Christi Hurt, UNC’s chief of staff and assistant vice chancellor for student affairs.
This week’s survey numbers weren’t shocking to those who have heard students’ stories, said Christi Hurt, UNC’s chief of staff and assistant vice chancellor for student affairs.
“They were alarming to me, but they are not surprising to me,” said Hurt, who is also director of the Carolina Women’s Center. “While it’s always heartbreaking to see these numbers, this is what we expected to see. It certainly conforms with what national data has been telling us.”
Hurt said statisticians are looking at the nuances and trends to better understand how the university can improve.
“We don’t have anything of this size and scope existing so far,” she said, “so it’s very important that we have this new data. We are still digging through it.”
UNC is among 139 universities under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault cases under the Title IX gender discrimination law. A wave of complaints by rape survivors and new federal guidelines have prompted an overhaul of policies at many universities, as well as additional training and staff to deal with sexual assault cases.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights concluded its investigation of the University of Virginia, saying the school did not provide “prompt and equitable” responses to sexual assault allegations, thereby perpetuating a hostile environment for some survivors. The government reached an agreement with the university, which promised measures to improve its handling of cases.
UNC’s case is still under review. The complaint was filed in 2013 by five women who said UNC mishandled sexual assault cases and the reporting of crime statistics. Two of the complainants were featured this year in a documentary about sexual assault called “The Hunting Ground.” The film explored the issue on a number of U.S. university campuses, detailing cases where perpetrators were not punished.
Student Body President Houston Summers said UNC can still improve its judicial processes. Some victims choose to report to the university instead of police, and under federal guidelines universities must investigate and adjudicate such cases. Summers said there should be a minimum sanction for those found responsible for sexual assault in campus hearing panels.
This should be beyond alarming. I mean, people should be just outraged, and I don’t see the outrage.
Jennifer Thompson of Chapel Hill, a rape survivor and co-author of the book “Picking Cotton”
“I have proposed a one-year suspension up to expulsion for the minimum punishment there,” Summers said. “I just don’t think we need those individuals on campus. I think when students see that section and they see some transparency there, then they will begin to have a little more faith in the system.”
Anyone who is suspended for a year should be required to go through counseling or training “to help them understand the severity of the issue before they can ever step foot back on campus,” Summers said.
Summers said he hoped to see more emphasis on bystander intervention, so that students understand how best to help friends in trouble. That can lead to culture change, he said.
Hurt said the university hopes to add to its staff that counsels students who have been harmed. A prevention task force will use the data to build a five-year plan for programs, she said. A particular focus is likely to be on residence halls, and fraternity and sorority houses, she said. “How do we put our best foot forward to apply all of our energy towards prevention,” Hurt said, adding, “to make sure our students are safe in every corner of our campus.”
Jennifer Thompson of Chapel Hill, a rape survivor and co-author of the book “Picking Cotton,” said some UNC students who have been assaulted have sought her out for support. She said such cases would be better handled by police.
“I don’t know that the report is going to do anything,” Thompson said of the new survey. “I think the problem is huge. ... This should be beyond alarming. I mean, people should be just outraged, and I don’t see the outrage.”
See the report
The Association of American Universities report on UNC-Chapel Hill can be found at http://safe.unc.edu/content/uploads/2015/09/UNC_CHAPEL_HILL_FINAL_REPORT1.pdf
The data tables are at http://safe.unc.edu/content/uploads/2015/09/UNC_CHAPEL_HILL_FINAL_DATA_TABLES.pdf