Rape numbers at many party schools are strikingly low. Why?

‘I wouldn’t want to be another text message’

college rape rape stats college SEXUAL ASSAULT uva

The Board of Education recently released its figures on how many rapes were reported on campuses during the 2014-2015 year. They found that nearly 100 schools had at least 10 reported cases of rape during that year.

I was saddened, though not surprised, to see my alma mater – the University of Virginia – at number five on the list, with 35 reported rapes. But when I started to look at the list more closely, I was confused by the schools that topped it.

Large state schools which carry reputations as being big party schools were scattered throughout the top 100, but most of the list was made up of small liberal arts schools or smaller Ivies, like Wesleyan (which had 37 reported rapes, or 11.5 rapes per 1000 students) or Brown (43 reports, or 4.7 per 1000).

Wesleyan is a small school of 3,224 in Middletown, Connecticut. While academically rigorous, it is also known for being a little off the beaten path. My own tour of the school, during my college search, was led by a student not wearing shoes – in November. As we wandered through the Connecticut foliage, two students screamed at us through a megaphone: “Lesbian sex is better!”

A picture of a girl on a window sill – posed by a model

Is it possible that a strongly liberal student body like this can be responsible for more rapes than a place like Penn State, a school of 47,040 with a party school reputation and a big sports-and-drinking culture.

And yet Wesleyan’s higher numbers may actually mean that they are tackling with the problem of sexual assault better than many other colleges.

“Our numbers going up when we make changes would actually be a very good sign because that means people are feeling comfortable coming forward,” a dean from a large public university told me.

“We know from the data that roughly one in five students who attend a four year university are experiencing sexual assault, we know that’s happening – we’re not going to deny that that’s the potential rate. But we want to see the reporting numbers go up, it shows that what we’re doing is working.”

Lauren L. Dunn, founder and director of SurvJustice, told the Washington Post, “Any time you have a zero, it is not an indicator of safety. It is an indicator of comfort in reporting.”

The problems in dealing with rape on campus is grounded just as much in the culture a school promotes as in the the numerical data provided.

“It isn’t really open. I know that I wouldn’t really feel comfortable reporting anything, I wouldn’t really feel safe,” Megan King, a current Penn State student, told me. “PSU within the last year or so started sending out sexual assaults that were reported to the same service as like snow delays and stuff… I wouldn’t want to be another text message, I’d want someone to help me, and honestly I don’t know where I’d go for honest help in that situation.”

When I reached out to Penn State, spokeswoman Lisa Powers they told me: “We know from history that more sexual assaults are committed than what is reported. We acknowledge that 12 is most likely not an accurate number for an institution of our size, and we know that rape is a drastically underreported crime.”

Despite their acknowledgement of the issue, the class gift from Penn State’s class of 2016 was a large donation to the school’s psychological services, “Which is excellent that students have the hearts to want to donate to that, but at the same time why am I funding this?” said Megan. “Shouldn’t this be one of the school’s priorities?”

A fellow Penn State student, Annabelle Schmitt, told me: “The education tactics they use are ineffective and a total waste of time.”

Students have to complete an online course about sexual assault, which presents the information in a completely un-engaging way. Additionally, there are no repercussions for not completing it. From the start there’s a sense that the school’s effort is half-assed, say recent students.

In contrast, at a smaller school like Ithaca College, which has 6,587 students, Alexis Morillo, a student there, says: “You have more face time when it comes to the various administrators and leaders on campus. Knowing that campus leaders are real people I believe would make it easier to speak out…”

Lizzy Gulino, a fellow Ithaca student told me that she “definitely feels like having a smaller school makes it look worse number wise.”

Schools that have smaller student bodies are inherently at an advantage for creating a sense of community. Duke University, despite its academic excellence, maintains a particularly negative public image, especially following the 2007 Lacrosse incident. However, when I asked Pinelopi Margeti, a freshman at Duke, if she would feel comfortable getting help from the administration if something like this happened to her she said, “Yes, 100 percent.”

A friend of hers, who works in the Student Conduct Office – where students can go to report any violations of university policy – added that, “A lot of the guys [who come in] voice opinions that mention their fear of allegations, so it’s something everyone is educated about here, and guys seem to understand the severity of their actions.”

Tulane University, another party school by reputation, had 14 reported rapes in 2014, which is 1.1 per 1000 students. From this number it would seem that a sizable number of people have come forward, however student Katie Cleghorn says her friend is the Vice President of SAPHE, the hotline on campus, “and from what I understand, most people don’t report and if they do nothing happens.

“I know off the top of my head probably 20 people who have been sexually assaulted on Tulane’s campus.”

The biggest anomalies on this list are large schools that have no rapes reported, such as NYU, which is primarily a result of the campus location. Many students choose to live outside of university offered housing, which falls outside of the jurisdiction of the Clery Report. Boston University, immersed within a city, much like NYU, had five cases reported in 2014, but Serena Tara says that the school’s large size doesn’t seem to affect people’s ability to come forward.

“Honestly I think BU is great in this perspective because it highly encourages students to speak up. But maybe it’s because we live in a city where rape is more common, so they encourage us to talk about it.”

In NYU’s case, the misdirection of data is at play. Spokesman Matt Nagel told me, “Due to NYU’s particular geography – its integration into NYC, rather than having a typical confined campus – it’s hard to do an apple-to-apples comparison with other colleges.

“NYU shows a separate ‘non-campus dorm’ category in our annual safety report… Once you include that category the number isn’t zero – it’s six,”

Nevertheless, six still seems like a strikingly low number at a school of 49,274.

UMass Boston, which is also nestled within the heart of the city, had only one reported rape. DeWayne Lehman explained that the number “may be low because we have no residential housing for students.”

However, some schools still seem to circumvent the issue. Miami Dade College – a school of 66,000 – is a commuter school with no student housing. Their spokesperson, Juan C. Mendieta said their zero reported rapes “Is a reflection of the positive atmosphere at our institution. It is not a reflection of hesitation by our students to report an incident.” Rather than acknowledging the possibility that their numbers fall outside of the Clery Report, they are holding to the idea that there simply isn’t a problem there.

Having been in the news extensively after the Rolling Stones article, the high numbers reported at University of Virginia weren’t exactly shocking. But Rebecca Weybright, director of the Sexual Assault Resource Agency in Charlottesville says, “Rapes happen on every college campus. If there are reported numbers happening, it typically means the school is receptive to people coming forward, so I wouldn’t look at that as a bad thing.”

While smaller schools do have an advantage, it doesn’t mean that bigger schools are doomed. An administrator at UVA told me, “Our role in student affairs is to make a big place feel small and help people find community here what that might mean for them. And it does provide a sense of efficacy – you can go to the dean of students office and they’re going to hear you and deal with your situation in an empathetic way.”

My third year at UVA I dealt with relentless harassment from an ex-boyfriend, which of course is a very different experience from rape – but I did reach out to the administration. I was one of 16,000 undergrads, but the associate dean of students sat down with me one on one to discuss my options and talk me through the situation. She gave me her personal cell phone number, and told me I could call her at any time, day or night, if I needed her. Two years later, when I returned for a young alumni reunion, I called her up and we grabbed lunch to catch up on how things were.

Obviously Virginia isn’t perfect, but as a student I always felt like the administration was just a stone’s throw away. Our Dean of Students is constantly walking through grounds, high-fiving students as he goes – I even took him out to lunch once. I knew these people’s faces, their voices. At some schools, people don’t even know administrators’ names. I had no doubt that if I reached out to them, which I did, they would respond quickly and with at least some sense of sympathy.

I hope girls at colleges across the country feel the same way – I’m sure many do. Sexual harrassment and assault can be the vilest invasions on the female college experience, and schools that don’t aide their women students during such episodes are guilty – in effect – of providing the harassers and the rapists a multiplier effect for the damage they can do.

Rape figures are famously one of the murkiest corners of crime reporting. We simply can’t be very sure what they are telling us and what they are hiding from us. But one thing is for sure: if we think schools are themselves hiding behind that opaqueness, we need to tell them.