Degree of Deception: Local schools under-reporting sexual assaults

Degree of deception on college campuses
Published: Oct. 26, 2015 at 7:55 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 29, 2015 at 10:01 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - An On Your Side investigation has uncovered local colleges and universities under-reporting sexual assaults that occur on or adjacent to their campuses.

A federal law called the Clery Act requires colleges and universities to compile an annual report of the number of various types of crime that take place on campus and on public property immediately adjacent to campus. The law also requires schools to keep a daily log of all crimes that are reported to campus police or security.

The Clery Act was signed into law in 1990. But those who advocate on behalf of students who have been sexually assaulted on campus say many schools fall short of complying with the law.

Laura Dunn is an attorney and founder of the non-profit SurvJustice. Her work has given her firsthand experience with schools violating the law, usually at the expense of those who have reported being sexually assaulted.

Compliance Concerns

"I think a lot of campuses are, unfortunately, not in compliance with the Clery Act," Dunn said.

Dunn singled out the growing trend of colleges—public and private—establishing their own police forces. The law in most states allows schools to set up sworn law enforcement agencies with full police powers in addition to non-sworn security forces.

"Any time you have a campus as its own fiefdom controlling even law enforcement, I think you're setting up a dangerous dynamic to support an institution over the rights of individuals," Dunn said. "Campus police are part of the campus system and they don't want waves."

When students call Dunn for help, she said, they are often out of options for receiving assistance on campus.

"When people reach out to us, they've been forced to suffer by the system: there's been failure by police, by prosecutors, by campus administrators. Sometimes survivors aren't even getting help when they want counseling or assistance in school."

A separate federal law, known as Title IX, requires colleges and universities to make adequate accommodations for those who have reported being sexually assaulted.

One thing Dunn and other advocates are particularly weary of is colleges that fail to properly report the numbers of sexual assaults on campus, both because it is a violation of the law and because it provides a less-than-accurate picture of the amount of crime on campus.

Changing the culture on campus

Dunn and other advocates aren't the only people acknowledging college administrators take steps to mask crime on campus.

Jeff Baker, Chief of Police at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said he is suspicious of a school that reports few or no sexual assaults in its annual Clery report.

"To say zero or to say those small numbers, that could mean that [the schools] don't have those avenues for students to report to."

By law, a school's annual Clery report must include the number of sexual assaults and certain types of other crimes reported to campus police or security; other off-campus law enforcement agencies; or a third group of people known as campus security authorities, which includes resident advisers, student life staff and certain types of counselors and student health workers.

Baker said being able to report an accurate number of sexual assaults on campus requires creating an awareness among students and staff of all the options available for reporting and getting help for sexual assaults—not just law enforcement.

"If you have those options and you still had zero, I would scratch my head," Baker said.

At UNC-Charlotte, Baker's philosophy has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of sexual assaults listed on the school's annual Clery report.

In 2013, the school reported just three sexual assaults. A year later, in 2014, the school listed a combined total of 39 sex offenses.

Baker said the sharp increase in the number of reports is actually a good thing.

"It is a tough thing to say that we've shown an increase in any type of crime and that that's good," Baker said. "I would tell parents that if there's a robust report, that that's a good thing because that's a university that is offering options to women who are sexually assaulted."

Baker said increasing the number of sexual assaults reported on campus each year requires changing the culture on campus, both in terms of educating students on what, where and how to report and also in terms of administrators recognizing the benefit that comes with higher numbers.

Checking the numbers

On Your Side Investigates wanted to check the accuracy of the numbers reported by colleges and universities in the greater Charlotte region.

Our staff spent months compiling and reviewing annual Clery reports and campus crime logs for 15 colleges and universities.

Each annual report is required to be released by October 1 for the previous three years. For instance, the reports that were released in October 2015 list numbers for crimes reported between 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Once we got the annual Clery report for each school, we requested the complete crime logs for the years covered by the report.

WEB EXTRA: Find the annual crime report for your school

Our questions about discrepancies between schools' Clery report and crime logs prompted changes at three universities. A fourth school, Queens University, amended its report to reflect one additional sexual assault reported on campus in 2012.

Queens University was the subject of an On Your Side Investigation in July that focused on how its campus police department handled a reported sexual assault on campus.

A spokesman for the US Department of Education confirmed that Queens amended its 2012 sexual assault number following our investigation.

Administrators at Johnson C. Smith University amended the number of sexual assaults for multiple years after our review of campus police records uncovered discrepancies in 2012 and 2013.

The university under-reported sexual assaults by one in 2012. A year later, the school failed to disclose four sexual assaults that were investigated by police in 2013.

Administrators also amended the number of sexual assaults reported in 2014 to reflect four. An original version of the school's 2015 report listed just one sexual assault for 2014.

Interim Campus Police Chief Debra Duncan said she amended her school's report as a result of our investigation.

"The university is committed to properly reporting the information," Duncan said in an interview. "We want to get it right. To be quite honest, I'm glad that you brought this to our attention because it can only make us better."

Duncan said most of the inconsistencies uncovered in our investigation stemmed from human error or crimes being improperly coded, things the chief said could be fixed.

"We found out that some of the problem was the classification of reports. So, what we did, we held a training—and I taught that training—to properly identify how to classify reports," Duncan explained.

A review of campus police reports at multiple universities revealed Johnson C. Smith University wasn't the only school to mis-label reports of sexual assault.

UNC-Charlotte also had one sexual assault report from 2011 classified as a simple physical assault with sexual motive. Baker, the campus police chief, said he would direct his staff to re-classify the report and update the number of sexual assaults from that year on the school's Clery statistics.

Administrators from Gardner-Webb University updated its 2015 Clery report after questions from On Your Side Investigates, too.

The school originally posted a version of its 2015 crime report on-line that reported two non-forcible sexual assaults in 2012, one sexual assault in 2013 and zero sex offenses in 2014.

After our questions, the school posted a second version of its report that re-classified the two sex assaults in 2012 to forcible sex offenses and added a sex offense in 2014.

A spokeswoman for the university said the changes were necessary because of a miscommunication between police staff and the staff member responsible for compliance with the Clery Act and Title IX.

"The inquiry from WBTV brought to our attention some internal gaps in communication relating to how Clery Act numbers are reviewed, reported, and audited internally. While the University did submit correct numbers to the U.S. Department of Education around the end of September, the 2015 internal report, which was made available to members of the community on Oct. 1, contained classification errors in 2012 and incorrect numbers in at least two categories for 2014," a university spokeswoman said in a statement.

"As soon as our Title IX compliance officer found the errors on the internal report, he requested that they be amended to reflect the actual occurrences. Those changes were made on or around Oct. 6 and the report was re-distributed."

A push for reform

The issue of sexual assaults on college campuses has caught the attention of lawmakers in Washington. A plethora of bills have been proposed to address the issue.

One bill gaining traction in Congress is the Campus Safety and Accountability Act of 2015.

The legislation is sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) is among the group pushing to pass the bill.

As a father of three daughters, Warner said this issue is personal for him.

"We are trying to make sure that the college can't sweep these things under the rug, that they need to report the data in a clear and appropriate way," Warner said. "I think the law is important but the change in culture that can be driven by college administrations is the most significant thing we can do. If the law forces that, so much the better."

Provisions of the bill supported by Warner and colleagues would do several things, including establishing new campus resources and support services for student survivors, change the on-campus disciplinary process, create new reporting requirements and stiffen the penalty for schools that break the law, among other things.

"When you hear the stories, particularly from victims who have had their lives dramatically altered by these incidences, in many cases the perpetrators having no sanction, you just have to say enough is enough," Warner said.

Progress being made, more education needed

For Laura Dunn, the advocate who founded a non-profit that works with students who report sexual assault, the fight to crack down on how colleges handle sexual assault is personal.

Dunn was sexually assaulted in 2004 during her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Since then, Dunn has shared her stories countless times. Ten years ago, she said, it was not common for sexual assault survivors to speak out.

"There's a lot of pain and suffering associated, not just with it occurring but, of course, with it being public," Dunn said. "People don't believe you, they criticize you and there's a lot of ostracism about who you are and your capabilities because of what's happened."

Dunn said the latest generation of students reporting sexual assaults is showing great courage in speaking out.

The vocal demands of justice from those who say they've been sexually assaulted on college campuses has started to draw attention to the need for change and reform, Dunn said.

"For some reason we are blind to what's happening on our campus," she said. "Campuses need to get over it and say it is a problem here and it's a problem everywhere and ask what are we doing different?"

Both Dunn and Warner agree that more education is needed to prevent this problem from continuing into the future.

"I think sexual violence will continue to be a problem until our country invests in meaningful prevention education that starts in middle school and is emphasized throughout high school," Dunn said. "We can't wait until college. It's too late."

Dunn said she things it could take decades before lawmakers, advocates and educators are able to find a formula that properly addresses the issue of sexual assault on college campuses.

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