Increase in reported sexual assaults, according to University safety report

Increased reporting may not reflect actual increases in crime, experts and University officials say.

Emma Dill

Annual reports of on-campus sexual assault have steadily increased since 2015, according to the University of Minnesota’s 2018 Safety and Security Report.

The report, released late last month, shows that reports of rape on the Minneapolis campus nearly doubled last year, increasing from 10 reports in 2016 to 19 in 2017. Reports of fondling also rose from eight in 2016 to 14 last year. The cause of increase is unclear, but could be a result of increased reporting and awareness around the issue, according to experts and University of Minnesota Police Department officials.

The report represents data from the University’s Aurora Center, office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, Minneapolis Police Department and UMPD.

UMPD Chief Matt Clark said the increased number of reports could reflect an actual increase in sexual assault or an increase in incident reporting.

Michelle Phelps, a University sociology professor who studies criminal justice, said reporting a sexual assault requires victims to identify the incident as a crime, and to decide that it’s “worth it” to contact a reporting authority.

“In each step of that of that [reporting] process you can have social change that increases the reporting rate … that isn’t necessarily a reflection of changes in the prevalence of the behavior,” she said.

Amber Powell, a Ph.D. student who studies sexual violence, said many college students do not report sexual assaults out of fear of retaliation and the stigma that can come with reporting.

Powell also added that she doesn’t believe sexual assault numbers in the annual report reflect the prevalence of sexual assault at the University.

Both Phelps and Powell said a national conversation about sexual misconduct may have contributed to the increase in reporting. Powell cited the #MeToo movement and the 2016 presidential election as events that have sparked a national conversation about sexual misconduct and assault.

Organizations on campus have also taken actions to promote these conversations. Last fall, the Minnesota Student Association formed a sexual assault prevention task force that aims to make policy changes to address student sexual misconduct.

Meara Cline, a co-chair of the task force, said she has noticed increased awareness of sexual misconduct.

“I think people are getting more comfortable having those conversations from what I’ve noticed. I would like to hope that expands beyond MSA and beyond the sexual assault task force,” she said.

Clark said the report is only a “snapshot” of campus crime. He said UMPD monitors short-term trends more closely than the report’s yearly statistics.

“The timelines are much tighter for dealing with crime,” he said. “How do we handle a current crime trend or pattern that’s happening right now? That keeps us responsive to the campus community. That keeps us responsive to crime victims.”

The report reveals a genuine increase in reported crime, Phelps said, but it can create a false sense of alarm.

I think [the report’s] greatest use is that they start a conversation between the University community and the police department about what are the issues coming to the police department and how are they how are they responding to those issues,” she added.