A report released last week by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education details the number of sexual assaults reported on Minnesota college campuses in 2015. The total number of reported assaults was 269, with 164 of those assaults reported investigated by campus officials. Of the 164 reports investigated, 68 “found the respondent responsible” and 79 cases resulted in “action greater than a warning.”
Minnesota’s largest university, the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, defines “sexual assault” as “actual, attempted or threatened sexual contact with another person without that person’s consent.”
In 2015, UMN had 47 reports of sexual assault with 15 reports investigated. Of those 15 investigated, 15 were referred to disciplinary process, but less than 10 were listed as being referred to police, resulting in discipline greater than a warning or the respondent being found responsible.
Kimberly Hewitt (Administrative Director Equity and Diversity, VP for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative UMN Twin Cities), responded to questions from Alpha News regarding the disparity between the reported 47 sexual assaults and the 15 investigations. According to Hewitt, UMN follows the guidelines issued by the US Department of Education regarding sexual assault reports and investigations. Hewitt says many of the reports come from staff mandated by law to report incidents of sexual assault as told to them by victims. The university is required to contact the victim to determine whether an investigation should be initiated. The university will “defer to the victim” when it comes to opening an investigation. The victim will be informed of the investigative process and given the option of whether or not to pursue the issue further. If the victim chooses to not pursue the investigation, the university will not force the victim to do so. Hewitt stressed to not generalize procedures between institutions since each university has its own procedures and policies in place for dealing with reports of sexual assaults on campus and/or on students.
The guidelines published by the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights regarding reports of sexual assault include investigating reported incidents of sexual violence; taking steps to end and prevent sexual violence; address its effects; protect the complainant; provide a grievance procedure for reporting sexual violence and use the “preponderance of evidence standard” to resolve the complaints. Finally, the schools “must notify both parties of the outcome of the complaint.” (Dept of Education) The guidelines are issued under Title IX, so failure to comply with the guidelines can result in schools not receiving federal funding. (Dept. of Education)
Last June, the issue of how universities around the country handle sexual assault investigations was brought to America’s attention through the Brock Turner rape case. Turner, a Stanford University student and star college swimmer, was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail for the rape of an unconscious female student in January 2015. The short sentence was met with outrage by women’s advocates and rape survivors who questioned whether that punishment fit Brock’s crime. The case itself also brought questions about how universities were handling reports of sexual assault.
After the Brock case, the Department of Education released a list of universities it had investigated and found in non-compliance with the above-mentioned guidelines. According to the report, Stanford University was under investigation by the Dept of Ed for five federal complaints against the university at the time of Brock’s sentencing. (Brock’s case was not included in the five complaints.)
The Department of Education’s guidelines and subsequent punishment of withholding funds from universities for failure to comply have drawn criticism from lawmakers, university leaders and Rights advocates. As reported by the LA Times, former Homeland Security Secretary and president of the University of California, Janet Napolitano, warned in an article in the Yale Law & Policy Review:
“‘Rather than pushing institutions to become surrogates for the criminal justice system,’ she said, policymakers should ask if ‘more work should be done to improve that system’s handling and prosecution of sexual assault cases.’
Under pressure from the Office for Civil Rights, campuses are rushing to set up a parallel legal system to investigate and rule upon murky encounters that often involve inebriated students. They must decide within 60 days whether it is “more likely than not” that an alleged perpetrator was guilty. And they make those decisions without many of the legal protections associated with a criminal trial.
The new procedures vary from school to school, but according to Harvard Law School professor Janet Halley and other critics, many do not allow the accused to know details of accusations against them, to question accusers, or to have lawyers participate in hearings. Many also allow only limited appeals of rulings by a campus administrator or outside expert.
The punishments can be a expulsion and a permanent notation on a student’s transcript, potentially life-altering penalties.
Critics call those moves dangerous procedural short circuits that have resulted in serious injustice.
A January 21, 2014 report released by the “White House Council on Women and Girls” increased pressure on college and university leaders to be more proactive in preventing sexual assault on campus and assisting victims when assaults occur. According to the report, 1 in 5 women in college have been sexually assaulted, but only about 12% of those assaults were reported to either campus staff or police. The report states:
As noted, 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while she’s in college…Reporting rates are also particularly low… on average only 12% of student victims report the assault to law enforcement.
The 1 in 5 statistic is disputed by many as an exaggerated number. Professor Mark J. Perry published an article for the American Enterprise Institute in January of 2016 that used the University of Minnesota as an example as to how far off the White House was with its statistics.
Let’s do some more math using recently updated crime statistics from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities for the four years from 2011-2014 (data are available here for 2012-2014 and here for 2011, and those data are summarized in the Table 1 above) and the White House’s reporting assumption of 12%. Over the most recent four-year period, there were 80 reports of “forcible sex offenses” at the University of Minnesota’s main Twin Cities campus. We’ll assume that 100% of the sexual assaults victims were female and 100% of the offenders were male. Using the White House claim that only 12% of campus sexual assaults get reported, there would have been approximately 587 unreported sexual assaults at UM during that period, bringing the total number of sexual assaults (reported + unreported) to 667 (see Table 1 above).
The University of Minnesota main campus has a total student population of 50,500, and about 26,000 of those students are female. Dividing the 667 estimated sexual assaults (80 reported + 587 unreported) over the most recent four-year period into the 26,000 Minnesota female students would mean that only 2.56% of University Minnesota women, or about 1 in 39, would be sexually assaulted while in college for four years. Certainly that’s still too high, but not even close to the White House claim that 1 in 5 (and 20% of) female students are sexually assaulted while in college.1111
The real number of sexual assaults each year is probably somewhere in between the White House’s reported number and the actual reported number; which statistically speaking, at least for the UMN, has increased by more than double from 2014 to 2015.