Reports of sexual assaults on or near University of California campuses rose by almost 50 percent last year, an indication that widespread protests over the way colleges handle allegations of rape and assault are having an impact.
Last year, UC campus officials received 199 reports of forcible sex offenses on or around their campuses, up from 133 in 2012, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis. All colleges in the system, except the University of California, San Francisco, an urban medical school, reported an increase.
The new data were reported under the federal Clery Act, which requires college campuses to tally accusations of forcible rape, fondling and other sex offenses that are reported to campus officials and not proven false. The reports for 2013 were due Wednesday, though some colleges did not immediately post them online.
The spike in sexual assault reports at UC campuses follows years of renewed attention and controversy over how colleges nationwide handle rape allegations. In recent years, students at dozens of schools across the nation have filed federal complaints alleging campus officials are mishandling and downplaying sexual assault cases, creating a hostile environment for female students.
Earlier this year, more than 30 current and former students at UC Berkeley petitioned the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for a formal investigation, charging that university procedures discouraged victims from reporting sexual assaults and favored the accused assailants. A month later, UC announced a revamped sexual violence and harassment policy that strengthens campus reporting requirements and mandates new training and education across the system.
In April, the White House released guidelines pressing U.S. colleges to do more education, training and outreach to curb sexual violence. And Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring California colleges to adopt rape-prevention policies that include an “affirmative consent” standard for sexual activity, putting the responsibility on someone engaging in sex to obtain a conscious and voluntary agreement from his or her partner.
Several experts and advocates interviewed Wednesday said the latest UC statistics indicate that universities are getting the message. The data likely don’t mean more students are being assaulted than in previous years, they said. Rather, the national discussion over sexual violence has encouraged more victims to come forward with their allegations and made universities more rigorous in their response.
“There is no reason to think that there is a 50 percent spike in rapes,” said Michele Dauber, a law professor and sociologist at Stanford University. “There is a lot more scrutiny. Right now, I think it’s the top priority – making sure the numbers are correct.”
Denice Labertew, director of the campus program at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, agreed, adding, “We are seeing more students coming forward to talk about their experiences. Students are feeling more comfortable. In the near future, (the numbers) are going to continue to rise. They are giving us a better picture of what is actually happening.”
Several advocates said that the new, higher numbers still don’t come close to capturing the extent of the sexual violence problem on campuses. Oft-cited studies, including a 2000 U.S. Justice Department report, have found that up to 1 in 4 female students experience rape or attempted rape before finishing college.
With about 240,000 students attending UC campuses, the system’s rate of reported sexual assaults last year was about 1 per 1,200 students. That would equate to about 1 sexual assault report per 240 students over the course of five years.
The number of sexual assaults reported by California colleges for 2013 varied widely.
California State University, Fullerton, reported zero sexual assaults on or near campus between 2011 and 2013. About 38,000 students attend CSU Fullerton.
By comparison, Stanford University reported 53 sexual assaults during the same period. It has less than half the students as CSU Fullerton.
The number of assaults reported at UC campuses in 2013 ranged from three at UC Merced, a relatively small campus, to 37 at UCLA. UC Davis reported 24 sex offenses, up from 18 in 2012. UC Berkeley reported 33, up from 23.
“That’s still shockingly low,” said Sofie Karasek, a senior at UC Berkeley who helped prepare the federal complaint against the university. “The reporting process is still not good enough.”
UC Santa Barbara and UCLA logged the largest increases in reports of sexual assault. UCSB reported 27 assaults last year, up from 13 in 2012 and seven in 2011.
The college recently got a federal grant that funds a full-time advocate for sexual assault victims and a part-time prevention educator, said university spokesman George Foulsham. “Our outreach and education efforts significantly increased,” resulting in more reports, Foulsham said.
UCLA reported 37 sexual assaults in 2013, up from 22 in 2012. Campus police have worked to create partnerships with students and staff to encourage reporting, said police spokeswoman Nancy Greenstein.
“Every sexual assault hurts, but to see the numbers go up is a good thing,” she said. “It shows our outreach and the students response to the programs have improved.”
Several officials said they expect the number of sex offenses reported under the Clery Act to continue to rise. Earlier this year, provisions of a new federal law, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, came into effect clarifying what constitutes a sexual assault and mandating that universities be more transparent in their reporting.
As that law and California’s affirmative consent law take hold, universities expect more students to come forward.
“We want victims to feel more comfortable coming forward and reporting,” said UC system spokeswoman Dianne Klein. “We want them to get the services and support they need.”