Sex offenses were more often reported to University administrators than to campus police last year, which experts say is because students are becoming more comfortable reporting such crimes to other campus resources.
Reports of forcible sex offenses to non-police, like counselors, jumped from six to 11 from 2012 to last year, according to the latest data available.
Sometimes sexual assault survivors will choose not to file a police report because going through the process of making an official statement can be “re-traumatizing,” causing them to re-live the assault, said John Foubert, a professor of education studies at Oklahoma State University who specializes in sexual assault prevention.
“Survivors are best served having initial contact with counseling on or off campus,” he said. “The survivor has a little more control of how things play out over there.”
Students might also fear that they’d face disciplinary action for underage drinking if they filed a police report after they were abused while intoxicated, said Bridgette Harwood, the co-executive director and director of legal services at the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. She added that students could worry that even if they filed a report, authorities wouldn’t believe them.
“When you go off to college, the last thing you want to do is disclose your assault. You could lose friends,” she said. “They’re some avenues to combating that, though, and that’s going to help. We really need to create a culture on campus that they know they have rights.”
Reports of sexual abuse on GW’s campus have increased from 14 in 2012 to 17 the following year. That means more students reported the crimes, but doesn’t necessarily mean there were more instances of abuse.
Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the country. While a report does not always lead to punishment of an offender at a university or in court, experts say the increase may show that more students are comfortable reaching out to their school after an assault.
Darrell Darnell, GW’s senior associate vice president for safety and security, said the number of reports likely increased in part because students now have multiple avenues for reporting.
“They report them in a way that they feel is the most comfortable for them and that meets their needs, and we encourage that,” he said in an interview.
When a student reports an abuse to an administrator, he or she has chosen not to file a police report at that time. The instance is included in the crime statistics GW is required to release under the Clery Act, which mandates colleges and universities record all crimes on campus, even those in which an incident is reported but a police report is not filed.
Administrators are still required to report the case to comply with the Clery Act, as well as Title IX, a set of laws regarding gender discrimination that also cover sexual assault in schools.
University Police Department officers undergo training to learn about both the Clery Act and Title IX, University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said.
Kim Lonsway, the research director of End Violence Against Women International, spends much of her time training law enforcement officers to respond to calls for sexual assault. She said she emphasizes that officers should ensure survivors know they do not immediately need to file a police report.
If someone over the age of 18 is sexually abused and wants to press criminal charges in D.C., the survivor has 15 years to seek legal action.
Lonsway said the decision to file a police report is always made on a case-by-case basis, and that it’s important not to pressure victims of sexual assault into deciding whether to speak with the authorities immediately after an incident.
“People picture ‘Law & Order’ and a terrible trial, and that is not the moment you want to think about that,” she said.
-Brandon Lee contributed reporting.