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Editorial: New rules fight underreporting

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 05, 2014 5:00 AM

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On Friday, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 — formerly known as the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act — will take effect on college campuses nationwide in an effort to curb high rates of rape, attempted rape, stalking, and domestic violence.

Under the new rules, participating schools will be required to meet stricter standards regarding reporting crime statistics and to provide victims with written versions of their rights to a variety of support services and their options for seeking justice. The law also clarifies the minimum standards for disciplinary procedures concerning on-campus sexual assaults.

Given the recent controversies surrounding the University of Iowa’s policies on sexual assault in the wake of President Sally Mason’s “human nature” comment and her subsequent apologies and policy proposals, the new federal standards are welcome.

Monique DiCarlo, the UI sexual-misconduct-response coordinator, told The Daily Iowan that “there’s a commitment to look at the act and continuously review it to make sure we’re in compliance.”

At this point, it is unclear whether the new standards will prove to be a significant improvement, particularly considering the university’s newly adopted Six-Point Plan to Combat Sexual Assault, but policies at both levels seem to be moving in the right direction.

Under the university’s plan, the administration has moved to improve its communication and education regarding the reporting sexual assaults, clean up the language in its timely warning emails, and improve campus-wide training procedures, among other things.

The clear common goal of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act and the administration’s plan, however, is to strike at one of the most insidious phenomena born of the sexual-assault epidemic: underreporting.

As it stands, one of the clearest problems of sexual assault at the UI is the lack of information about the extent of the problem. So far during this academic year, university officials have received eight reports of sexual assaults and one report of an attempted sexual assault. The problem with those numbers, of course, is that they’re artificially depressed because an unfortunately small number of victims of sexual assault report those crimes.

Scott Berkowitz, the president of Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, said that though 40 percent of victims report sexual assault nationwide, “only about 12 percent of college students report sexual assaults.”

One explanation for the significantly inflated rate of non-reporting on-campus is that a significantly higher proportion of the sexual assaults committed at colleges are perpetrated by acquaintances.
Berkowitz told The Daily Iowan that approximately 90 percent of students who are sexually assaulted know their perpetrators compared with 66 percent of victims in the general population.

This increased familiarity could increase the relative difficulty of reporting an assault. Many women also fear reprisal upon reporting an assault or lack faith in the justice system to adequately handle their case without being subjected to the trauma of repeatedly reliving an assault.

Those fears are well-founded. According to some estimates, as many as 97 of 100 rapists are never convicted because of underreporting and the difficulty of prosecuting rape cases. Justice, for the victims of sexual assault, is hard to come by.

Underreporting leads to dreadful conviction rates and massively complicates any efforts to understand and stop sexual assault. The renewed federal and university efforts to make reporting processes more transparent are positive steps, but for meaningful progress toward more frequent reporting to be made, the culture — not simply the rulebooks — must become more supportive of the victims of sexual assault.


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