The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) earlier this week released a landmark new study on sexual violence in higher education that is consistent with prior national data, but it most significantly demonstrated the importance of collecting institution-specific “climate survey” data directly reported by students. The Campus Climate Survey Validation Study Final Technical Report found, for example, that across nine institutions, an average of 25.1% of female undergraduates had experienced a sexual assault during their academic career. This is something that has been previously reported, but the highest prevalence rate among the institutions was 50.8%, and the lowest was 13.2%. This type of data, along with corresponding survey information about campus cultures, is the key to empowering individual campus communities with the essential first piece of the solution to sexual violence: a guide to the precise scope of the challenge ahead of them.
The new DOJ report is one piece of a much larger effort by the federal government to stress the importance of campus climate surveys in taking on campus sexual violence. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault recommends that institutions of higher education conduct the surveys, and it called for this validation study as part of that initiative. Following that path, several pieces of legislation pending in Congress would require campus climate surveys.
Studies since the 1980s, including several prior DOJ reports, have found similar results, including average prevalence rates of between 20% and 25%, that most perpetrators are known to their victims, and that most incidents aren’t reported to the authorities. Higher education personnel, policymakers, and the public have paid significant attention to this issue over the years, notably in the early 1990s and since 2011, but unfortunately there has not been a profound change in the overall prevalence of the problem. One of the biggest challenges to those addressing these issues has been a lack of campus-by-campus specific data on victimization rates and corresponding cultural issues.
Since it was first enacted in 1990, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act has been the primary source of data. Relying on this data, however, significantly understates the scope of the challenge because it is limited both to incidents occurring on property directly associated with the institution and when there is an official report. The new study, consistent with prior data, found that “about one-third of rape incidents … took place on campus” and that only “12.5% of rape incidents were reported by the victim” to officials. The DOJ found this meant that 2,380 completed rapes against students in their sample of nine institutions during the 2014-2015 academic year corresponded to only 40 reports under Clery. Whether or not actually occurring directly on campus or officially reported, these incidents impact a campus, and having the complete picture is essential to those entrusted with preventing and responding to sexual violence.
Campus climate surveys go beyond the prevalence of victimization and also paint a picture of how students perceive the culture on their individual campuses. This evaluates how students view issues such as consent, toleration of sexual violence by their peers, and the availability of resources to assist victims. The report states that it “is thought that by identifying areas in which the climate can be improved and making positive changes through interventions targeting the student population … victimization and perpetration rates on college campuses could be decreased.”
The complete DOJ report is available from their website, and it contains many important details about the composition of climate surveys, including a copy of the one they used for this project, which can help equip institutions to conduct their own. Being able to compare data from institution-to-institution and from year-to-year is essential and using this standardized information will help with this important goal. This presents institutions with a critically important resource that can guide them toward either beginning to conduct these surveys or building on existing efforts.