Some area colleges reported a big uptick in rape on campus last year. But the increase may be a positive sign that students feel more comfortable reporting sexual assaults, college officials said.
The University at Albany and Skidmore College reported the highest number of campus rapes in the region, but those schools see the numbers as suggesting recent efforts to improve victim resources and student awareness of sexual assaults are paying off as more students come forward to report crimes — not that there is actually an increase in sexual assaults on campus.
“When we see reports going up, we don’t think our campus is more dangerous,” said Chantelle Cleary, who oversees the sexual assault prevention and response as UAlbany’s Title IX coordinator. “What it means to us is that that members of our community are coming forward and reporting things that are happening.”
Sexual assaults have long been considered one of the most under-reported crimes both on and off college campuses. In recent years, college officials have increased efforts to raise awareness around sexual assaults and create an environment where victims feel more comfortable reporting an assault.
UAlbany, for example, in 2014 established a campus advocacy center for sexual violence, which is staffed with a pair of full-time victims’ advocates who counsel students about their reporting options and connect them to recovery resources. Last year the college trained around 2,000 students about how to respond as a bystander who witnesses potentially sexually violent behavior.
The number of reported campus rapes increased from just four in 2014 to 11 reports in 2015 and 27 last year, according to the school’s annual Clery Report, which tallies on-campus crimes. Cleary said even more sexual assaults occur off campus and aren’t counted as part of the Clery statistics.
“The Clery numbers are just a small representation of the reports we are getting,” Cleary said.
At Skidmore, 14 campus rapes were reported last year, up from five the year before. The college also suggested the uptick in reported cases may be a sign that efforts to ease the burdens of reporting an assault were paying off.
“The increased reporting seems to reflect a growing awareness and willingness among our students to come forward, seek resources and ensure their voices are heard,” Skidmore Title IX coordinator Joel Aure said in an email statement.
Skidmore has been home to some high-profile cases, which drove hundreds of students in 2015 to hold a “silent protest” against the college potentially reinstating a student who was found responsible for sexual assault after a one-year suspension. The perpetrator’s suspension was extended at the time.
That protest came about after Reina Keifer, then a sophomore, went public about the sexual assault she endured during the spring of her freshman year. Keifer was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after the assault, she said last week. Years later she still remembers the dates of the assault and the campus hearings that followed.
While she fought hard to prevent her assailant from returning to campus after a one-year suspension — students who protested alongside her wore shirts that said “Don’t graduate rapists” — Keifer said she felt the school improved its approach to sexual assault prevention during her years on campus.
“I don’t think Skidmore is any different than any other college campus,” said Keifer, who graduated from Skidmore in May and is working as a research assistant at a hospital in Providence. “If the numbers at any school really reflected the truth of what was happening, the numbers would be the same at every school.”
Keifer said when her case went public she heard from many current and former Skidmore students who had experienced sexual assaults. She said it was important for her to speak out and share her story and for other victims to understand they did nothing wrong.
“I encourage people that there is no shame in reporting, there is not shame in anything that may or may not have happened that led up to the assault,” she said. “Nope, actually nothing else other than the fact that this person had sex with me without my consent matters.”
Other colleges in the region saw smaller changes in the number of reported campus rapes. Union College reported four rapes last year, up from one the year before; Siena College reported seven cases. The College of Saint Rose reported two cases; the year before it reported no campus rapes.
Maggie Fronk, executive director of Saratoga-based victims advocate and awareness organization Wellspring, said the ultimate goal is to eliminate college sexual assaults. But before that can happen, colleges and advocates still have more work to do in improving the culture by increasing the number of people who step in to stop inappropriate behavior and infusing affirmative consent practices in all students.
“We want that number to get down to zero, but we want it to get down to zero because there are no more rapes,” Fronk said. “But we aren’t there yet.”
Efforts to increase the rate of reporting on campuses is important in heading off future crimes too, because research indicates a small number of perpetrators commit a significant share of sexual assaults. But victims’ advocates are careful to say victims must make very personal decisions about whether they want to report an assault to police and endure interviews and a drawn-out legal process that may not end in a conviction.
“Repeat offenders are responsible for a wildly disproportionate amount of sexual violence occurring on college campuses,” said David Lisak, a forensic consultant who specializes in sexual assault perpetrators and who addressed a conference on campus sexual assault hosted this week by state police.
“If victims don’t trust the system, they don’t report,” he said. “And if they don’t report, then we can’t go after these guys … who are responsible for these crimes.”
Lisak said it was “way too early” to know whether colleges were making ground on reducing campus sexual assaults or even if reporting rates were on the rise.
State officials have also focused on the issue more in recent years, passing the 2015 Enough is Enough legislation, which requires all public and private colleges in the state to meet certain student education requirements and also gave victims the option of reporting an assault directly to state police rather than campus or local law enforcement
As part of that law, state police in 2015 formed a special unit focused exclusively on campus sexual assaults. The unit is made up of a dozen investigators positioned across the state and who are each responsible for dozens of campuses.
Since the new unit was formed, it has opened around 150 cases and made 28 arrests, said Kelly. Some of those cases are ongoing.
“We clearly feel that reporting is up,” said Technical Lt. Gary Kelly, who leads the unit. “We feel very comfortable and confident that all the work being done by our unit and campus partners is making a difference.”