Clery Act Data: Sexual Assault at Penn State Remains Troubling Trend
The number of victims reporting sexual assault has remained, essentially, the same for nearly two decades.
The consistency is not much of a surprise, said Peggy Lorah, the director of the Center for Women Students in Penn State's Office of Student Affairs.
"We know from interactions with the [victims] who do come forward ... this is the only crime I'm aware of where [the victim] sees herself or himself somehow responsible for it," Lorah said.
Kristen Houser, the vice president for communications with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said the country at large is 'tragically misinformed' when it comes to understanding sexual assault – and the numbers aren't confined to Penn State.
Local, off-campus police departments handled nearly 20 reports of sexual assault, both on- and off-campus, between August and December – the span of Penn State's just-completed fall semester.
According to Penn State's crime statistics, mandated by the Clery Act and found in "Policies, Safety & U," released by the university in October, 24 reports of forcible sexual assault were reported on-campus – 10 of those in a residence hall – and six reports were reported off-campus to Penn State Police in 2011.
Only university police are mandated to provide crime statistics per the Clery report, not the local police departments that serve Centre County – including Ferguson, Patton, State College and Bellefonte.
In 2010, Penn State Police fielded four reports of sexual assault on campus – four reported from residence halls – and one off-campus report. A year earlier, Penn State Police received eight reports of sexual assault on campus – six in residence halls – and two reports off-campus.
Other Big Ten schools reported numbers comparable to Penn State's. The Ohio State University – which has about 50,000 undergraduate students to Penn State's 40,000 – reported a total of 34 sexual assaults fielded by university police in 2011, according to the university's own Clery statistics. Of those, 19 reportedly occurred in a residence hall and nine were in other spaces on campus. Five were reported off-campus and one was on public property. In 2010, 12 assaults were reported on campus, a decrease from the 21 on-campus sexual assaults reported to Ohio State University Police in 2009.
At Indiana University, where undergraduate enrollment is about 40,000, numbers are similar. In 2011, 11 on-campus sexual assaults were reported to campus police, seven were reported from inside a residence hall and 10 assaults were reported off-campus. In 2010, campus police fielded 17 reports on campus, 13 from residence halls and four were reported to campus police off-campus. In 2009, police received 21 reports of assault on-campus, 20 from residence halls and one from public property. There were 13 sexual assaults reported off campus, according to Indiana University's Clery statistics.
Houser said the numbers lie in the fact that too often, victims don't report, 'for a slew of reasons.'
"It's not complex or unique to Penn State – it's the trend across the country. I think that most victims don't want to get other people involved ... there are many, many complex reasons and many of them tie back to that they don't want other people to find out, they're afraid of reactions of friends and family," Houser said.
"Victims know darn well, 'Well, if I was drinking, are people going to blame me? Are they going to say it was a mistake ... is this a safe place for me to talk about what's happened to me?'
"Many of them just want it to go away," Houser said.
A Penn State alumna herself, Houser said she believes the university has come a long way in its conversation about sexual assault and how it's handling reports. There's an increased sensitivity to mandated reporting, Houser said.
Changes in mandatory reporting and how sexual assault is classified in the Clery Report also influenced the numbers Penn State returns in a year. Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in the early 2000s, there was little distinction between the nature of the crimes that are covered by the Clery Act.
"For example, if someone [was] grabbed or touched inappropriately, that [was] classified the same as a rape (under sex offenses). They are all considered sexual assaults," Powers wrote in an email.
In 2005, for instance, there is no data for the total number of assaults reported to police – all of which would have fallen under the 'rape' category. Between 2005 and 2007, only three 'actual offenses' were reported to university police.
Other factors contributing to a rise in sexual assaults reported include reports by victims of Jerry Sandusky that came out only after the scandal broke in late 2011. Powers said there is also new protocol that Penn State Police follow.
"Previously, assaults where the person was known to the victim – commonly called "acquaintance rape" – were reported on Penn State's daily police log which goes out to the media," Powers wrote. "We have now decided that all sexual assaults – whether by a stranger or someone the victim knows – should receive a timely warning alert under the Clery Act.
"The Department of Education has no specific guidelines related to what types of crimes need a timely warning, except if there's an ongoing danger to the community. In the case where the perpetrator is known by the victim, their name and address are also usually known, decreasing the threat to the community.
"However, under Clery guidelines and our interpretation, we are making every effort to go above and beyond the current expectations and practices of other institutions. We have committed to making a good faith effort to report these crimes to ensure that our students are fully aware."
The Penn State community was forced to discuss sexual assault and re-examine what it knew and believed about it when tragedy hit a year ago. Sexual assault can't be compartmentalized – and there's neither one 'type' of victim or assailant.
"We've come a long way," Houser said. "Our culture at large likes to think that they know about victimization. To really understand [it], we have to look at the research – what do we know?
"They plan them out, they figure out how to make them happen. A wide variety of people perpetrate."
Houser said perpetrators strategically use drugs and alcohol to trap victims, and that is only one of the many tactics – such as trust and manipulation – that attackers use to track their victims.
Each time an offender is given another 'pass,' Houser said, it only makes the problem worse.
"It does not happen by accident," Houser said. "It happens by intent."
Houser and Lorah said the number of on-campus assaults aren't the result of a lack of security, either. Too often, the attacker is either living in the same building, on the same floor, or granted entrance by the person who later is victimized.
"It's about respecting boundaries," Lorah said. "It really is a silent crime."
There, then, remains the open-ended question of what can be done. There's no one answer – nor is it easy, according to Lorah – but there has to be a permanent change in the one area Penn Staters have heard a lot in the past year.
"We are consistently trying to get the message out that victims are not responsible for crimes against them," Lorah said. "There's a lot of victim-blaming, our culture is so sexualized that it's easier for us, as a culture, to believe it's the fault of someone who's been sexually assaulted.
"It's really about respecting someone else's right to say no. Someone else's body is not available to you without that permission."
Houser said taking the 'pass' away from perpetrators could make a real difference.
"The bottom line is, culturally, we still think we don't know sex offenders, that we don't know anyone that would do that," Houser said. "The reality is that it's giving the camouflage to all the offenders.
"I don't think our country has advanced the conversation on healthy models of sexuality, how gender stereotypes hurt both men and women. We have to start intervening earlier and earlier."
Penn State has been working to improve its intervention methods drastically since the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke. More than 4,000 university faculty and staff trained for compliance with the Clery Act, Powers said.
"If reporting did not go up, I would say that our training was not effective," she said. "We obviously would like any occurrence of crime to decrease, but we certainly want reports of those crimes to increase."