Gromotka: No sense in hiding the truth

BY ADAM GROMOTKA | JULY 10, 2014 5:00 AM

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A short while ago, the Washington Post released a report about colleges and universities reporting cases of “forcible sex offenses,” and — SURPRISE — it seems many of the nation’s campuses are completely safe and free of such atrocities. According to the report, 45 percent of surveyed institutions claim to have had no reported cases of sexual assault or rape, major portions of what “forcible sex offenses” means. While the numbers were collected in 2012, it’s probably safe to assume this pattern hasn’t drastically changed over the past two years, and it’s also probably fairly safe to assume that almost half of the nation’s colleges and universities reporting zero cases is a little wonky.

The underreporting and bobbling on how to handle cases of sexual assault and rape obviously aren’t new, groundbreaking discoveries. I needn’t dive too deep into describing the UI fiasco surrounding the matter that occurred late last winter, though it is worth noting for the sake of suggesting that the university is not alone. We have close-to-home experience with an institution that placed itself in a large and confusing gray area about the subject, and we’ve witnessed the counterintuitive, crumbling results of trying to maintain healthy public relations.

It’s also worth noting that the survey is perhaps flawed; there shouldn’t be an option of reporting zero cases of forcible sexual offenses. It’s a very, very misleading number. “Zero” hints that a university is somehow a safe zone, that a college of thousands of people is somehow able to function completely scot-free, and that some institutions are safer than others — especially those honestly and genuinely reporting their numbers.

It suggests that there — by some magic — exists a densely populated area that — by that same magic — doesn’t represent overwhelming, nationwide statistics. A “five or fewer” option would remove this façade of immunity from traumatic incidents, though such a system would still find itself open to abuse.

The funny thing — in sort of a sick, demented way that creates a terrible vision of how the business side of things tends to operate — is that the whole public-relations goal surrounding underreporting numbers is a gargantuan, harmful waste of time. Most, if not all, students planning to pursue secondary education would probably still do so even if their target universities and colleges reported cases of forcible sexual offenses. Despite placing 11th on the list, Michigan State still managed to enroll almost 50,000 students last year.

It’s the same logic that explains why someone would chose to live in a big city such as Chicago despite its fairly high rates of violent crime. Students will always want to attend universities because of the positive financial and academic opportunities and experiences doing so brings. It’s how to protect these students that matters. It’s not about selling the supposed safety of a campus.

For everyone’s sake — universities, their students, and parents considering whether or not it’s OK to send their kids to a school — it’s time for institutions to face the problem head-on with proactive and open stances on the occurrence of rape and sexual assault. Simply reporting the numbers is the minimal requirement, and even that task seems botched with the fear of looking bad, the fear of admitting that the darker side of humanity can exist at a destination of higher learning.

Reporting on cases of misconduct seems to be picking up momentum since the time of the survey, but there’s still a ways to go. Maybe, by some miracle, there are schools at which sexual assault doesn’t happen, but actively ignoring or hiding the problem — that these issues can happen anywhere — only makes the situation that much harder to fix. It’s not human nature, but it is a human issue that surpasses any reason to save face.

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