Sexual Assault at Stanford May Not Be What It Seems

On October 11, The**Stanford Daily reported that ten instances of sexual assault had been filed in 2008, unchanged from the previous two years. The reaction from campus leaders on this issue was expected – the fight to end sexual assault continues and must continue until that number reaches zero. A sexual assault-free campus is indeed a laudable and necessary goal. However, our progress on the issue, based on the statistics on hand, is difficult to estimate.

The reporting of the number of sexual assault cases, as required by the Clery Act, does provide some insight into that progress. Indeed, the Daily used the recently-released 2008 numbers to compare our campus to others, such as Cal’s and Harvard’s, and to look at how the situation has changed over the last five years. Yet a number of factors call into question the validity of “sexual assault cases reported” as a valuable metric in determining Stanford’s progress.

First, the number of cases reported at our peer institutions varies wildly with many statistical inconsistencies. For one, Cal’s number of cases, two, makes no sense considering the massive size of their student population. To get at the explanation for this discrepancy, I spoke with Carole Pertofsky, **Director of Wellness and Health Promotion Services at Vaden, who revealed how jurisdictional differences explain the surprisingly lower number: “**One big difference is that the Clery Act addresses crimes on campus. More assaults occur in Berkeley, however, outside the jurisdiction of campus.” Stanford’s high proportion of students living on-campus results in a higher tally for our campus. Clearly, campus living arrangements can significantly impact the numbers, making it difficult, if not impossible, to compare ourselves to many of our peer institutions.

Second, the statistics do not often reflect the on-the-ground reality of the situation. According to Stanford Police Chief Laura Wilson, “Sexual assault is definitely an underreported crime.” Pertofsky indicated that many experts have estimated that the reporting rate is around 10%, meaning that administration officials or the police never hear about nearly 90% of all cases. The lack of reporting makes assessing year to year changes in the number of cases all the more difficult.

Third, educational initiatives aimed at increasing that reporting rate may inadvertently increase the number of reports of sexual assault. Obviously, that’s not to say that those initiatives are not incredibly valuable and necessary to overcome this issue. However, it does further place into doubt the usefulness of many statistics. As the *Daily *article reported, “Since 2001, the Clery reports have shown an upward trend in the number of reported assaults at Stanford.” It is quite possible then that a strong educational campaign may significantly reduce the number of *actual *sexual assaults, while increasing the number of reported assaults due to a larger rate of reporting.

Finally, sexual assault statistics often vary wildly from year to year with little explanation, and due to the relatively low number of cases, those irregularities can drastically affect one year’s number of reported cases. For instance, Petrofsky explained the “surge in crime statistics two years ago” as a result of a “single ‘groper’ guy who rode a bike around campus and tried to grope women who were also on bikes.” Even Chief Wilson, who has dealt with the issue for many years now, has often been left puzzled by the spikes and troughs in the data. “I really haven’t been able to ascertain or figure out why one year is different or another,” she told the Daily. “The numbers reflect something but I’m not sure if they reflect what’s happening.”

How then should Stanford track its progress on the sexual assault issue? The answer remains unclear. Petrofsky indicated that Sexual Violence Advisory Board survey will be conducted sometime in winter quarter, which should grant campus leaders further insight into Stanford’s state with regards to sexual assault. However, such surveys will continue to be inaccurate until Stanford’s chronic underreporting can be resolved. Until then, the work on confronting sexual abuse must continue – and Stanford’s press and leaders must be cautious before declaring substantial progress on the issue. In this case, the numbers *do *lie.

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