Data draw murky picture of sexual assaults on Wisconsin campuses

By Alex Morrell
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Posted Feb. 28, 2010

National research suggests there may be about 750 rapes or attempted rapes a year at a school the size of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with about 21,600 women.

How many sexual assaults? Depends on the report. Click for a larger view. WCIJ/Kate Golden

In 2008, the school reported one sexual assault.

Or five.

Or eight.

Or 44.

Depending on which report you read.

In fact, there are four different reports, sometimes with four different numbers for each of the campuses in the University of Wisconsin System, because of the different standards for what’s included:

  • Office of Justice Assistance report. Required by state law, it uses the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report standards, which are significantly narrower and only include reports to university police, who have jurisdiction only over on-campus assaults. To count, an assault must show evidence of force, not just lack of consent, and penetration of a female victim. In this report, UW-Madison reported one rape in 2008.
  • Clery Act report. Federally mandated and available from the Department of Education, this report asks for crimes reported to university police or anyone with significant responsibility for students or campus activity, such as deans, athletic coaches and resident assistants. This includes incidents that happen on campus, on public property — which includes streets, sidewalks and parking structures within and immediately adjacent to and accessible from the campus — and on non-campus buildings that are owned or affiliated with the university, such as some fraternity houses and remote classrooms. That number was five at UW-Madison in 2008.
  • Campus crime and safety reports. They have different titles depending on the campus but are usually the primary information available to students. They may reflect data from the Clery-mandated annual security report or the UW System report — or may be entirely different. UW-Madison reported eight sexual assaults in its 2008 “Campus Safety Guide.”
  • UW System annual report. Also required by state law, it shows a much higher number of sexual assaults — 44 at UW-Madison in 2008. The report includes attacks against students on and off campus that are disclosed to any UW employee. However, some counselors consider themselves exempt from this requirement.

Search the database: Click here to compare sexual assault statistics on UW campuses (opens a new window).

Campuses’ varying numbers leave many people puzzled, according to S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization Security on Campus. Despite that, the act of reporting campus sexual assaults helps hold universities accountable and generates awareness, Carter said.

“They’re important because before we had this kind of data, colleges and universities … simply pretended the problem didn’t exist,” he said. “And these types of reports at least force the issue into the light of day.”

The reports also have the power to shape the public’s perception of campus safety.

A high number of assaults alarms people, especially those unaware of data showing that two-thirds to nearly 90 percent of attacks are committed not by strangers but by friends and acquaintances. And low numbers mean some will underestimate the problem’s severity.

“Obviously it impacts people’s view of the problem; they don’t think it’s that serious. People are often surprised to hear how often sexual assaults happen on campuses,” said Ingrid Peterson, UW-La Crosse’s violence prevention specialist.

UW-Madison Assistant Dean of Students Kevin Helmkamp said he prefers the UW System numbers, because they include a broader range of incidents.

“I’m an advocate for these numbers from the system report being more accessible,” he said.

He also said the incongruous final tallies don’t reflect how seriously university officials treat the problem.

“I think from the staff and administrative point of view, there’s no one that doesn’t take the issue seriously as it currently is, and that would be based on whether it’s 13 or 44 or whatever,”  Helmkamp said.♦


One Response

  1. Man.. talk about spin.

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