Last year, NPR and the Centre for Public Integrity did an excellent series on sexual assault on college campuses, the lack of support for victims, and the administrative problems with the handling of sexual assault on campus. Many colleges lack the personnel and training to handle rape cases, and the series highlighted the many problems rape victims may experience when they report cases, the lack of justice for college students who experience rape and sexual assault, and what that says about the college system as a whole, in addition to social attitudes about rape and sexual assault.
Many students, like victims in other environments, simply don’t report. There are significant barriers to reporting on small campuses especially, where a student may become the centre of very much unwanted attention, with little recourse to do anything about it. If you’re a member of the student body at, say, a small liberal arts college with 500 students and you report a sexual assault involving a fellow student, you will become a target for attention. There are no secrets on small campuses; even if you are supposed to be protected, you will be known, other students will take sides, and you can be at the middle of a controversy for doing exactly what you were supposed to do.
This can be a significant obstacle that shouldn’t go unremarked, along with all of the other issues that make it hard for people to report rape, like the knowledge that if you are not a ‘model victim,’ you may not see your case go to trial. You may be shamed for bringing it up. You may be mocked and laughed at, depending on your circumstances, for daring to report a rape and daring to think that people should pay attention when you are talking. To report a rape in a society like this one is to be aware that you may face a grueling ordeal over months or years, with no guarantee of a return at the end.
And then, there is the eternal problem of the college reputation. Colleges in the United States are required to provide information on crime statistics to their students, and they will do everything possible to understate those statistics, for obvious reasons. The University of Chicago, for example, is trying to shake the reputation of being an urban campus in a potentially dangerous part of Chicago, and thus doesn’t like it when crimes take place in Hyde Park and it has to add them to its statistical reporting. It especially doesn’t like it when those crimes involve students, and thus attract media attention, and can become a disincentive for applicants considering the University.
College campuses engage in a concerted effort to suppress crime statistics, which also means that they need to suppress crime reports. NPR documented a particularly glaring case at Eastern Michigan University, where a student was raped and murdered, but her parents were told it was a sudden and unexpected, but natural, death. This is not the only campus that has done this, it’s not the only campus that has been caught doing it, and despite penalties, campuses will continue to do it, because they do not want to look bad and have an incentive for coverups as a result.
Clearly, the solution to troubling crime statistics, to keeping a sound reputation, is to cover up criminal activity rather than addressing it! College campuses take rankings very seriously, as well they should. A college’s reputation can make a significant difference for high flying academics who are deciding where they want to go, as well as talented student athletes who may have their pick of campuses. Students want to go to a school with a good name, and they don’t want to go to a poorly-ranked institution. They also don’t want to attend college in a place known to be dangerous, if they have the choice of going to another institution that may offer comparable academics with less of a risk of crime.
Campuses obviously do have crime prevention programmes and make a concerted effort to make their environs safer, by a variety of means. Whether it’s late night shuttles for students, excellent lighting around campus buildings, or emergency phones on every corner, prevention is definitely in place on a lot of campuses. Yet, so is the suppression of crime statistics, which means that you have to view the statistics released by campuses with a certain degree of suspicion; having been on campus at a small liberal arts college where a student died and the school tried extremely hard to suppress that information, I know well how college administrations work to maintain an unblemished image. They want parents to think they are sending their children to a safe, comfortable place, not a den of sin or a place where they are likely to be victims of crimes.
Much of the approach to crime prevention on college campuses is victim-focused: Here is what you can do to avoid being a victim. A converse, criminal-focused approach would seem to make more sense, except that such approaches are hard to enact without quickly falling afoul of boggy ground and issues like profiling. The message sent by victim-focused prevention programmes, though, is that people are always personally responsible for crimes that happen to them, with only themselves to blame, and this is reinforced by the suppression of crime reports and statistics. When a crime is swept under the carpet, that suggests there is something to be ashamed of, and when you are the victim, it is easy to think that you are the one who should be ashamed when it is actually the educational institution that has the real problem here.