Courtesy of Principal Deputy Director Bea Hanson of the Office on Violence Against Women

Yesterday morning, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a groundbreaking report: the Campus Climate Survey Validation Study (CCSVS) Final Technical Report, a key deliverable of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault (Task Force).  Established by President Obama on Jan.  22, 2014, to develop a coordinated federal response to campus rape and sexual assault, the Task Force recommended in its first report that schools conduct climate surveys to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, assess students’ perceptions of the climate at their school on the issue and obtain valuable information to develop solutions.  The Task Force also released a toolkit and sample survey, which the BJS study – funded by the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) – revised and pilot tested at nine diverse colleges and universities, including public, private and community colleges.

A total of over 23,000 students completed the survey, and the results were incredibly informative.  This study showed that each of the nine schools had unique “climate” factors – perceptions and beliefs related to sexual assault and sexual harassment.  The BJS study also revealed different rates of sexual assault at each institution and how schools varied across different measures.

  • For undergraduate females, prevalence rates of completed sexual assaults ranged from 4 percent to 20 percent at the nine schools during the 2014-2015 academic year, with 2 percent to 8 percent of female students experiencing the trauma of a completed rape during that time.
  • For undergraduate males, the prevalence rate of completed sexual assaults ranged from about 1 percent to 6 percent during the 2014-2015 academic year.
  • Over the course of their time in college, 13 percent to 51 percent of females in their fourth year had been a victim of sexual battery or rape.  Females, younger students and lesbian, gay and bisexual students were most at risk.  Transgender students were also among those most at risk for sexual assault. Since entering college, the prevalence rate of sexual assault for transgendered persons at all nine school was almost 28 percent.

The CCSVS report demonstrates that schools can successfully conduct a valid and reliable campus climate survey to measure the prevalence of sexual assault among their students and gauge student perceptions of the campus environment.  The report provides a set of best practices – including an updated survey – to assist schools and researchers in the design and implementation of climate surveys.

Sadly, the report also documents the harmful impact of sexual assault, and in particular rape, on students’ lives, from problems with schoolwork and relationships to thoughts of transferring or dropping out of school.  This makes it all the more crucial for schools to address sexual assault.  Schools want their students to succeed, but it is evident that sexual assault takes a serious toll on academic enrollment, performance and coursework.

Incoming first-year female students were at the highest risk for sexual assault in the first few months of the academic year compared to older students and other times of the year.  Particularly striking were the number of sexual assaults that occurred in August, given that the school year tends to start late in that month.  This shows the need to reach incoming students with sexual assault prevention messages before they ever set foot on campus.  Consistent with other studies, and Clery Act reports, very few sexual assaults were reported to any official – just 4 percent of rapes were reported to law enforcement and a mere 7 percent were reported to any school official.  These statistics are disturbing and emphasize the importance of connecting survivors with the support they need.  It is important to note, however, that the vast majority of victims in the study did tell a roommate, friend or family member about the assault, demonstrating the importance that friends and family members receive training on how to respond to disclosures of sexual assault.

We also know that confidential resources are crucial to enabling survivors to learn about reporting options, protections from retaliation and interim measures available to students, even if they are not ready to make a formal report.  More than 20 percent of victims who didn’t report the assault cited concerns that their report would not be kept confidential, and nearly 30 percent cited fears of retaliation, which is closely connected to concerns about confidentiality.

In addition, the study found that schools where student respondents had a negative perception of school leadership on sexual assault issues had higher rates of sexual harassment and sexual assault at their school.

OVW and other components of the department, like the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), the Civil Rights Division and the National Institute of Justice, are tackling this problem head-on.  OVW funds colleges and universities to improve their responses to sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking, and along with OVC and other department components, OVW is exploring ways to help more schools implement quality climate surveys and take action to improve prevention and response efforts based on the results.  BJS and OVW will offer a series of webinars on the CCSVS results and best practices for conducting campus climate surveys.  These will be open to specific audiences and the general public, and information will be posted on the BJS and OVW website.

We can’t solve the problem if we don’t understand it, and each school has different resources, needs, students and experiences.  It is clear that every school must be informed about the prevalence of sexual assault and the perceptions of students to develop campus specific programs to prevent and end sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

OVW administers financial and technical assistance to communities across the country that are developing programs, policies and practices aimed at ending domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.  OVW’s Grants to Reduce Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, Dating Violence and Stalking on Campus Program strengthens the response of institutions of higher education to the crimes of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking on campuses and enhances collaboration among campuses, local law enforcement and victim advocacy organizations.

In fiscal year 2016, Congress increased the appropriation for OVW’s Campus Grant Program from $12 million to $20 million.  The fiscal year 2016 Campus Grant Program solicitation is open and accepting applications until March 3, 2016.