06/05/2013 09:14 am ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

Campus Notifications' Role In Combatting Sexual Assault Examined

Wikimedia Commons: Ktr101

This article, written by investigative journalism students at the University of Massachusetts, is presented as part of a larger series addressing issues related to sexual assault on college campuses.

The federal Clery Act requires colleges to alert their communities of ongoing threats, as well as to keep and disclose an accurate log of crimes on campus. But when it comes to dealing with sexual assaults on campus, administrators at colleges across the country often wrestle with complying with the law and informing the public, while at the same time trying to maintain a positive image of their schools.

At the University of Massachusetts-Amherst police notifications regarding active campus threats are sent directly to students. The decision to send notices of other crimes, including sexual assaults, that occur on campus is left to the discretion of administrators.

In October 2012, officials at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst took the unusal step to hold a press conference to discuss what they said was a gang rape in a campus residence hall.

University spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said such a press conference was necessary because otherwise "there would be all sorts of discussion, and as a result, unfounded rumors."

Across the country at Occidental College, second-year students Michaela Bosch and Hannah Kessel were surprised to first learn of a reported rape involving two students through the local Los Angeles news media, rather than from a school alert.

In a Feb. 27 letter to the Occidental community defending the lack of notification, Dean of Students Barbara Avery said that the case, "while very serious, was determined not to constitute a continuing threat."

In response, Bosch and Kessel wrote, “We reject the notion that rapists on our campus are not a continuous threat to our safety.”

They felt the school wasn't living up to its obligations, so they rallied online support through a petition urging the school to use its crime alert system to report sexual assaults.

The fallout directly led to a federal complaint against Occidental, alleging the school failed to comply with the Clery Act and violated Title IX mandates to properly investigate and adjudicate sexual violence on campus. The college is now under federal investigation.

The University of North Carolina also is facing a federal investigation into whether met Clery Act standards. Melinda Manning, a former assistant dean of students at the school, said deciding whether to notify students of on-campus crimes is difficult for colleges because there are no in-depth federal guidelines.

"I think the problem is, if you send out too many [alerts], students will ignore them,” she said.

The Campus SaVE Act, passed earlier this year as part of the Violence Against Women Act, will require colleges to expand crime reporting to include things like stalking and dating violence. It will also require schools to provide awareness programs for all new students and staff in an attempt to prevent sexual misconduct from happening in the first place.

Many of the students at colleges in the Pioneer Valley area of Massachusetts who were interviewed for this story said they do feel safe on campus, and that education has to go hand in hand with security efforts to combat sexual violence.

Amherst College student Columbia Clancy pointed out that many assaults are not so-called stranger rapes but often occur in social settings -- in "small, dark rooms," where police are unlikely to be present. Education about the issue and being aware is important, she said.

"I think in order to prevent [sexual assaults] from happening you have to start educating boys and girls earlier on not to rape people," said Shelly Enright, a student at Mount Holyoke College. "I don't think you should educate how to not get raped; you need to start telling people -- we need to just emphasize that rape is wrong. I think a lot of people have forgotten that."