Should campus women's centers be required to report statistics on sexual violence?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher issue "Crime on Campus" by Peter Katel on February 4, 2011


In 2002 — 12 years after the Clery Act was enacted and eight years after regulations for carrying it out were issued — the most comprehensive survey to date of colleges' responses to sexual assault found that only 36.5 percent of institutions were reporting statistics in a manner fully consistent with the law's requirements. [Footnote 17]

Of all the issues involved in compiling data from a variety of campus sources — from college police departments to dormitory advisers and rape-crisis centers — one of the most complex is confidentiality. Under 1998 amendments to the Clery Act, professional mental health counselors and religious counselors are encouraged but not required to disclose the number of reports of alleged sexual offenses they've received. [Footnote 18]

Yet, by all accounts, counselors receive far more reports from victims than do police or college officials. And many college counselors work at women's centers, whose services typically include counseling and support for victims of sexual violence.

The Clery Act counseling exemption reflected the position of the American Psychological Association (APA). “Students should feel confident that what they say to a counselor is in confidence,” an association spokeswoman, Nina Levitt, said in 1999. Even reporting raw data could jeopardize that confidentiality, she said. [Footnote 19] Psychologists have been concerned that campus authorities could demand that victims disclose specific information on a potential offender, for instance, in order to protect other students' safety.

The University of Colorado's Friedrichs says the confidentiality provision serves a valuable purpose. “We are a confidential office; we are not required to tell anybody anything unless we have a written release of information,” she says. A change in that policy would “impact on the student and our ability to communicate.”

A further complication, says S. Daniel Carter, public policy director of Security on Campus, is that some states extend a confidentiality exemption not only to professional counselors but also to victims' advocates who may not have professional credentials. Even so, he says, the number of schools that exclude crime data because of the exemption isn't known. “No one has done large-scale research” on that issue, he says.

The exemption has led to some confusion at one of the country's biggest university systems. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education ruled that the University of California (UC) had misinterpreted the counselor exemption to exclude crime data that came from all campus officials who may have done some counseling — as opposed to full-time counselors. “Institutions are expected to determine which officials … do not have significant counseling responsibilities,” the department ruled. UC had changed its policies by the time the department ruled, and the school wasn't penalized. [Footnote 20]

Moreover, even supporters of the counseling exemption say that statistics on sexual assaults can be misleading because the events that students recount may have occurred in hometowns or in childhood. It's a point Friedrichs makes. Her victim-assistance center's database, for instance, doesn't contain a separate classification for alleged sexual assaults that took place on campus, she says. If the center decided to report statistics, “we would have to start counting our numbers differently,” she adds. There has been no discussion of doing so, however, she says.

Even if a center did decide to report sexual-assault figures, how a counselor asks about a student's experience can make a big difference in how an event is classified. Fisher, the University of Cincinnati political scientist, and her colleagues found that when college women were asked detailed questions about uninvited sexual encounters without use of the word “rape,” responses made clear that more sexual attacks occurred than women were reporting. The researchers found a victimization rate of 27.7 assaults per 1,000 female students. And because some women were victimized more than once, the rate of incidents was 35.3 per 1,000 students. [Footnote 21]

“In a given academic year … for a campus with 10,000 women, this would mean the number of rapes could exceed 350,” they wrote. [Footnote 22]

Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education (ACE), which advocates on policy issues for colleges and universities, argues, however, that while “there are said to be many instances” of unreported sexual assaults, “if they're not reported, you do have to wonder how serious they were or whether they occurred, frankly.”

Meloy also says that “most institutions have disciplinary procedures that are adequate to handle sexual-assault allegations,” though she adds that “sexual assault is also a criminal matter and college procedures are not a substitute for that avenue of addressing situations that may occur.”

Kassa of Security on Campus suggests one mechanism to get around the confidentiality problem: Have counselors voluntarily report aggregate numbers of alleged crimes to a third party, who then would transmit them to the people who do the statistical crime compilations required by the Clery Act. That would separate the counseling function from the data-gathering function altogether, he maintains. “You don't have to have your counselors make the statistical report.”

The key point of the Clery Act's counselor confidentiality privilege is that it's not mandatory, Kassa says. “This is the beauty of the Clery Act — it gives [colleges] all the discretion in the world.”

Georgetown's Cantalupo says she has no problem with reporting aggregate data on reported sexual assaults. She acknowledges that some counselors fear that women would refrain from speaking of their experiences if they thought that what they said would automatically be disclosed to campus authorities. But, she says, that reaction could be dissipated if counselors made clear that they would report nothing but numbers.

A problem could arise if college administrators treated a statistical disclosure as an overall waiver of the counselor exemption, Cantalupo says. But “any institution that is really interested in solving this problem will not do something like that,” she says, “because they would realize that their victim-advocate office is their best possibility for fixing the problem” of sexual violence on campus.

Sokolow, the campus-safety consultant, argues that changing the Clery Act to require statistical disclosure from counseling centers would be a bad idea. But he says institutions should urge counseling centers to report numbers of alleged assaults voluntarily. “Schools ought to be saying, ‘Share your statistics,’” he says.

The Issues

* Has the Clery Act increased campus safety?
* Should campus women's centers be required to report statistics on sexual violence?
* Are laws and lawsuits forcing schools to become more protective of students?

For more information on the CQ Researcher report on "Crime on Campus" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF.



[17] Heather M. Karjane, et al., “Campus Sexual Assault: How America's Institutions of Higher Education Respond,” Education Development Center, 2002, p. vii,

[18] “Code of Federal Regulations, Title 34 — Education, Part 668, Subpart D, Sec. 668.46,”

[19] Quoted in Christina DeNardo, “Law closes loopholes in campus crime reporting,” Daily Orange (Syracuse University), April 30, 1999.

[20] “Final Program Review Determination Letter,” U.S. Education Department, March 31, 2003, pp. 10–12,; Rebecca Trounson, “Study Faults Crime Reports at UC,” Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2003, p. B7.

[21] Fisher, et al., op cit.

[22] Ibid., p. 11.