Sexual assault ‘vastly underreported,’ say 30 U.S. Senators

A recent letter from 30 U.S. senators, including Oregon’s Ron Wyden, stated that nearly 91 percent of colleges in the U.S. reported no incidents of interpersonal violence on campus to the Department of Education in 2014.

The letter was released on July 1, the anniversary of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. The act was established to amend the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Crime Statistics Act, or the Clery Act of 1990.

Part of VAWA requires universities that receive public funding to report instances of sexual violence to the Department of Education.

“These directly conflict with the DOJ and CDC data on sexual assault, and strongly suggest that schools are either not taking the reporting obligation seriously or are not creating an environment where students feel comfortable coming forward to report, and are vastly underreporting these crimes,” the senators stated in the letter.

Low incidence of reporting at PSU

In Oregon, Portland State’s liberal arts neighbor Reed College has repeatedly made headlines for its high rate of reported sexual violence on campus.

Meanwhile, between 2010 and 2012—before the VAWA amendment was enacted—the Oregonian reported PSU to have a report rate of .32 per 1,000 students on campus, significantly smaller in proportion to Reed’s rate of 9.62 per 1,000 students, reported during the same time period.

These PSU statistics pale in comparison to the widespread statistic that one in five women on college campuses faces sexual violence, according to the Department of Justice.

“We are wanting our reporting to go up,” said Julie Caron, the Title IX coordinator and associate vice president of Global Diversity & Inclusion at PSU. “We will never have the same reporting percentage as Reed.”

Higher numbers, said Caron, indicate that more students are reporting the crimes they face, rather than an increase in crimes overall.

According to a study conducted in May 2015 by Association of American Universities involving 150,000 respondents at 27 universities, 11.7 percent of college students experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force or incapacitation since they enrolled at their university.” Of these, 20.1 percent were female and 10.8 percent experienced penetration.

Clery reporting and PSU geography

The figures that Wyden and 30 other senators address are those in the Clery Report.

The reason for such low report numbers is partly to do with the geographical component of Clery reporting.

“It is kind of confusing, in fact I don’t think the federal legislators understand the geographic boundaries,” Caron said. “I am trying to be able to talk to Senator Wyden about it.”

“We do get incidents in the residence halls and those incidents will be reflected in the Clery reports, but most of the incidents that the Women’s Resource Center and the Dean of Student Life handle, that are student-to-student, aren’t within our geographic area,or within the definition of crimes Clery requires us to report,” Caron said.

At PSU, crimes on the premise of the Vue Apartments, for example, are not considered on campus and aren’t reported to the Department of Education. Crimes that occur on the Park Blocks, which act as a thoroughfare on campus, are reported.

Sexual crimes that happen on campus but remain unreported to the university—or go reported unofficially—are also not included in the Clery reports, which the university sends out every October. And according to numbers released by the WRC earlier this month, many cases go unreported.

The WRC has services on campus for students who have been victims of interpersonal violence. Between July 2015 and June 2016, 184 students contacted the WRC about these services.

“We know we’re not catching everyone,” said Coordinator of Response for Domestic and Sexual Violence at PSU Adrienne Graf. “Some statistics estimate that around 20 percent of women face some form of sexual violence while they’re in college, so we know that 184 certainly isn’t 20 percent of 30,000,” or the roughly 15,000 female students at PSU.

Graf also acknowledged that sexual violence happens to all genders.

Graf’s position was added last year, partially in response to VAWA, and is federally required under Title IX, a title under the Department of Education that addresses sex discrimination. Before that, Graf held the interpersonal violence advocate position at the WRC.


The WRC is unique in that interpersonal advocates assisting victims of sexual assault are confidential, whereas most bodies on campus—including staff and faculty, the Campus Public Safety Office and resident assistants—are “responsible employees” required to report information regarding interpersonal violence involving students.

When a sexual assault is reported by a responsible employee the institution must take steps to investigate and remedy the case, if possible.

Students who face interpersonal violence off campus are still eligible for guidance and services from the WRC.

Last January, the WRC designed a practicum course titled Students in Sexual Violence Prevention, Education and Response. The course will return this fall and also certifies students as federally approved confidential advocates in PSU’s 24-hour peer response program.

CPSO deputization effect on sexual assault reporting

In the past when PSU students chose to report a sexual crime, they would be sent to the Portland Police Bureau, because CPSO did not have the authority to deal with such issues, nor did they have specific training to handle them.

The recent deputization of CPSO means that CPSO can now directly deal with the reporting of sexual assault following an on-campus incident.

“There [were] times when someone would want to make a report and we [would wait] three or four hours in the center for a Portland police officer to come take it. If we want to look at that one piece, of ease of reporting, it does make that a lot easier,” Graf said, noting that some survivors may not be comfortable turning to CPSO.

“We are committed to a survivor centered response,” said Chief of Campus Safety Phillip Zerzan. “The survivor decides what level of service is most appropriate for them. If that choice is prosecution of student conduct, a thoughtful, thorough and professional investigator can assist in that process.”

As of four years ago PSU also has a dedicated sexual assault detective, Matthew Horton, a former Portland Police Bureau officer whose work experience involves cases of sex crimes and domestic violence.

“We have a pretty great working relationship with him, and so when survivors want to access reporting, we want to make that as easy as possible for them,” Graf said.

When reports are made at the CPSO office, advocates from departments such as the WRC are included in the interview processes, but not all reported cases turn into prosecutions.

“From reporting to prosecution is actually a pretty complicated road, and I think there tends to be a lot of misunderstanding,” Graf said.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is that the district attorney is the one who decides to prosecute cases or not,” Graf continued. “So you can report a case to the police, it could be picked up by a detective. You’re interviewed by the detective and then that information, at that point, is reviewed by the district attorney, and [that office] chooses which cases to prosecute.”

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice, between the years of 1995 and 2013, 20 percent of sexual assault victimizations were reported to the police.

Prevention efforts

Amy Kayon similarly filled a newly created position at PSU last November partly in response to VAWA, relationship and sexual violence prevention coordinator. Her focus is on prevention of interpersonal violence, rather than response to crimes that have already occurred.

“[Primary prevention] means you’re really trying to address social, systemic issues that drive people to become violent in the first place,” Kayon said. “It’s the long game, not the short game.”

Bystander intervention, which promotes awareness and fellowship while witnessing a risky situation, is the subject of one of the workshops Kayon runs through her program Illuminate.

“The more people we train on campus to do [bystander intervention], the less people will come onto campus to do that following behavior, because they know that at PSU on campus they’re going to get called out,” Kayon said.

But Kayon pointed out that getting students involved is not always easy.

“You’re only going to get a subsection of students who are willing to engage in [workshops],” Kayon said. “As if pizza is enough to give up four hours of your Saturday.”

Kayon is helping athletics coaches lead mini-lessons on prevention throughout the year. Prevention workshops are also offered at dorms. Kayon is currently working on lessons for international students studying at PSU, who she says commonly attend her workshops.

“Prevention doesn’t have to be reactionary,” Kayon said. “A lot of programs on campus don’t need to have a problem to realize it’s an investment in our culture at large.”

“And on college campuses, when you’re really looking at close reporting in a small area, sometimes student prevention work increases your response and your reporting rates,” Kayon added. “It can almost look counterintuitive. It’s because you’ve helped define what a problem is.”

Creating a Safe Campus Module

PSU also has an online module, the sexual assault module, intended to provide students with information in case of “a problem relating to gender discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, or other concerns regarding sexual misconduct,” according to the introduction page.

By spring term 2016, about 42 percent of students had completed it, according to Caron.

“Anecdotally I know it’s making people feel like they’re more resourced,” Graf said.

“There currently are not any registration holds for not completing it, and that’s something that we keep discussing,” Caron said.

If completion numbers on the module don’t improve soon, having a registration hold for failure to participate in the module may be further explored.

Students interested in contributing their thoughts on the topic of the module are encouraged to contact Julie Caron about focus group opportunities.

“We’re always welcome to feedback on it,” Caron said.

Whether universities are underreporting federally or students are choosing not to report their sexual violence cases, Clery report statistics out of PSU appear to be unrepresentative.

During spring term 2016, PSU released a random-participant campus climate survey, intended to “better understand the climate at Portland State University, the extent of dating/domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault and misconduct among students, and the use of programs and services currently being offered,” according to the PSU website.

Numbers for the survey have not yet been released, but are expected to shed light on the effectiveness of PSU’s sexual violence response.

UPDATED August 1, 2016 for correction: Julie Caron’s title was incorrectly printed as “vice president of Global Diversity & Inclusion at PSU” in the July 26, 2016 edition. Caron is actually the associate vice president of Global Diversity & Inclusion at PSU.