An underreported crime [Editorial]

According to a recent White House report, one out of every five young women is victimized by a sexual assault during her college years. Yet nearly half those crimes are never reported to school officials or to police. Only about 12 percent of students formally report a sexual assault on campus, investigators found, with the result that such acts have become one of the most underreported crimes against college women.

That is why Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat and candidate for attorney general, has introduced legislation in this year's General Assembly that would require Maryland's colleges and universities to conduct anonymous surveys among women students in order to determine how commonly incidents of sexual assault actually occur on the state's campuses. The survey would give school and law enforcement officials a much more accurate picture of how frequently such attacks occur and allow them to target counseling and other services to sexual assault victims more effectively as well as hold the perpetrators of such crimes accountable.

Since 1990, when Congress passed the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or Clery Act, all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs have been required to collect and publish data on crimes that occur on or near their campuses. The act was named in honor of Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old college freshman who was raped and murdered in her Lehigh University dorm in 1986, a crime that focused national attention on the problem of sexual assaults against college women.

But while schools now routinely keep and disclose such information, many victims of sexual assault remain silent rather than come forward to report such crimes when they occur. The reasons appear to be that young women frequently aren't certain whether an encounter meets the definition of abuse, especially if the perpetrator is someone they know or with whom they have a dating relationship, or because they blame themselves for being in a situation that leaves them vulnerable to attack. Young women may also fear the stigmatization that too often attaches to victims rather than perpetrators of sexual assault.

The toxic combination of shame over having been victimized and fear that no one will believe their stories leaves many young women feeling isolated and helpless to confront their attackers. One University of Maryland College Park alumna who was raped during her sophomore year in college testified at a hearing in Annapolis last week that it took six months before she was finally able to tell family and friends what had happened to her. Another victim at the same hearing, who testified that she was sexually assaulted as a sophomore, said she didn't realize she was the victim of a crime because at the time she was in a relationship with the man who attacked her.

Schools clearly need to do a better job educating young college women about the issue of sexual assault and the resources available to victims. At the same time, they need to take a strong stand against a campus culture that tacitly encourages or condones attitudes toward women that could lead would-be predators to believe they can get away with sexually mistreating their female classmates. That's something colleges and universities have never been very good at, despite the passage of the Clery Act, and they are unlikely to make it much of a priority unless they are required to face up to the reality of how frequently such incidents occur.

Administering surveys in which students (both women and men) can report sexual assaults anonymously without having to directly confront those who victimized them would give school officials a much better handle on the scale of the problem than they now have — and would almost certainly bring pressure to bear on university officials to take more aggressive steps to deal with the issue. That is what has happened after similar surveys in the military have revealed far higher rates of sexual abuse than official reports would suggest. Surveys by themselves won't prevent assaults or bring the guilty to justice, but they will help bring attention to the issue and give school officials a better idea of how to target outreach and educational efforts. Most importantly, it will ensure that no one can pretend the problem doesn't exist.

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