COLLEGE
10/12/2014 09:00 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2014

Colleges Are Reporting More Sexual Assaults, And That's A Great Sign

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Earlier this month, colleges and universities nationwide released their annual campus crime reports, and the good news is that many schools accused of mishandling sexual assault cases announced higher numbers for sexual assaults on campus.

It's a positive sign, experts and advocates say, because it suggests that more victims are coming forward -- rather than that more crime is taking place.

Oct. 1 was the deadline for colleges and universities to issue their annual crime reports covering 2013, which are mandated under the federal Clery Act. The reports must disclose the numbers of reported sexual assaults, drug and liquor law violations and other specific crimes within certain campus boundaries. Under-reporting violations can lead the U.S. Department of Education to order fines of up to $35,000 per error.

Multiple schools stand accused of botching these numbers in the past. But some of those same schools posted significant increases in reported sex offenses in the latest Clery reports.

Occidental College in Los Angeles, for example, reported 12 sexual assaults for 2011 and 11 for 2012. But in its report released this month, the school noted 64 reports of sexual violence.

"We believe this substantial increase over last year's number is primarily due to increased awareness of Title IX issues and of reporting and support options at the College," Occidental said in a campuswide announcement. "Of the 64 reports made in 2013, 34 involved conduct that occurred prior to 2013."

Caroline Heldman, an Occidental professor who has been critical of the college's handling of sexual violence, similarly told HuffPost that a "survivor-led campaign for better reporting and transparency at Occidental College means we are finally seeing more accurate Clery numbers for sexual violence."

The Clery Act was passed in 1990 to highlight problems of campus crime. But since rape and other sexual assaults are notoriously under-reported, Clery statistics have failed to present a true picture of those crimes. Now the accuracy of those numbers may be improving.

Over the past three years, the number of sexual assaults disclosed in Dartmouth College's annual Clery report has risen. Dartmouth reported 15 for 2011, 24 for 2012 and 35 for 2013.

The higher numbers were due to the fact that "we have strengthened the climate for reporting on campus," said Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence. "We want the number of reports from sexual assault survivors to go up, but the prevalence to go down," she said.

Even though the Ivy League school has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism over the last few years for how it responds to victims of sexual violence, experts and advocates largely agree with Dartmouth's explanation for why its crime figures have jumped.

Seeing higher numbers in annual crime reports for sexual violence means the campus is "breaking that culture of silence," said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus.

Other schools previously under fire showed similar increases in their latest reports. Sexual assaults at the University of California-Berkeley rose from 23 in 2012 to 33 in 2013. Sex offenses at the University of Southern California increased from 24 in 2011 to 33 in 2013. Harvard University's rape and forcible fondling numbers ticked up to 40 in 2013 from 26 two years earlier. The University of Connecticut's number is up from eight in 2011 to 25 in 2013.

Some other criticized schools, including the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Amherst College, posted drops in their numbers.

What actually concerns the experts is seeing a school report that it had no sex offenses on campus in a given year, which nearly half did for 2012. The real number is highly unlikely to be zero, given that an estimated 1 in 5 women will experience a completed or attempted sexual assault by the time they finish college.

"We will have institutions say, 'This doesn't happen here' or 'It's not an issue at my campus' -- that's a huge red flag," Kiss said.

Annie Clark, co-founder of the survivor advocacy group End Rape on Campus, agreed that the reporting of few or no assaults is suspicious. Even if low numbers reflect no active effort to present a rosy picture, Clark said, they still shows that students don't feel comfortable disclosing assaults.

"I would say Clery data is very limiting in terms of what it's able to report or convey," Clark said. "A campus climate survey [of a school's students] would give you a much more accurate picture of what's happening."

But that doesn't mean a school can't improve the accuracy of its Clery statistics or that only universities under intense scrutiny are reporting higher numbers now.

The University of Iowa saw its reported sex offenses nearly triple over three years, from 7 in 2010 to 20 in 2012. It is also issuing timely notices of sexual assault reports through campuswide emails -- seven so far this fall semester.

Iowa's notices provide information about how to report sexual violence, which has changed over time to include less emphasis on risk reduction strategies and more on bystander intervention. That was done in response to student feedback, according to Monique DiCarlo, Iowa's deputy Title IX coordinator. The university spent months considering that language with input from various groups on campus, DiCarlo told HuffPost.

"If you can coordinate things so it's not who's more right but how can we be right together," DiCarlo said, "your intervention and prevention efforts are going to be better."

More colleges should engage in those kinds of discussions, said Laura Dunn, founder of SurvJustice, a nonprofit advocacy group for sexual assault victims.

"My suggestion to schools who want to increase reporting and fear the negative blowback is frame the message yourself," said Dunn, who argues that if schools acknowledge and openly discuss sexual assault, they can persuade more victims to come forward.

Ultimately, those discussions may help move a campus community toward an actual decrease in the incidence of sexual violence.

"I couldn't do this if I didn't believe that it would look different by the time my 9-year-old daughter comes to college," DiCarlo said. "I believe we can prevent the problem. There's a commitment -- that's what it's going to take."

CONVERSATIONS