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A University of North Dakota student walks past an emergency station along University Ave. at dusk Wednesday in Grand Forks. Eric Hylden/FNS

Campus sexual assault is sparking public discourse

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Two female University of North Dakota students who were raped at gunpoint by a stranger at their off-campus apartment in Grand Forks last year were not counted in university crime statistics.

But those UND students are not the only ones missing from rape statistics, as several factors make it difficult to fully reflect the scope of rape and sexual assault on college students.

The issue has thrust itself into public discourse, most recently with the controversy over the November Rolling Stone report that chronicled the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student at a fraternity house.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics report released last week found that women ages 18 to 24 are at more risk of being sexually victimized than women in other age groups.

Nearly 1 percent of UND students responding to a survey reported they had experienced sexual assault within the last year, according to the 2012 National College Health Assessment II organized by the American College Health Association.

That survey underscores data from the Clery Report, which documents campus crime statistics as is mandated by the federal government. The 2014 UND Clery Report shows 11 students reported rape or sexual assault in 2013, nine in 2012 and nine in 2011.

However, the Clery report only compiles numbers of assaults that occurred on or next to campus. So the two students raped at their off-campus apartment were not counted in Clery report numbers. The Clery report also only includes assaults that were reported.

And many go unreported. The BJS report, entitled Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, found that about 80 percent of sexual assaults on college women were not reported to the police.

Estimates of the number of college women who have been sexually assaulted or raped vary widely, depending on which study you look at. That is partly due to differences in methodology, like how the questions are asked and how rape and sexual assault are defined.

Some studies, like the recently published BJS report, define rape more narrowly. That report looks only at rape and assaults that occurred within the prior year and includes forcible rape, but not coercive sexual assault or drug-enabled or drug-facilitated sexual assault.

That study found that nearly 6 in 1,000 college women on average had been raped.

Other studies like the Campus Sexual Assault Study, which surveyed nearly 5,500 undergraduate women from two large public universities, use a wider definition of rape. That survey included forcible rape and also drug-enabled and drug-facilitated sexual assault, in which the victim is unable to consent because of drug or alcohol use, whether of their own volition or not. It also looked beyond one year and asked respondents whether they had been assaulted at all during college.

That study found drastically higher rates of sexual assault than the BJS report, with nearly 14 percent of college students having been sexually assaulted since starting college.

Christopher Krebs, a social scientist and co-author of the Campus Sexual Assault Study, said it is not practical to compare the different studies, since they employ widely differing methodology.

But he said both studies add to the body of literature on rape and sexual assault and drive the conversation forward.

"The data from CSA do not represent colleges nationwide ... but they're similar to what other studies have found," he said. "Other studies have found problems at other universities, and the statistics are being used to drive a conversation."

University Police Chief Eric Plummer said underreporting is an issue.

While there are many reasons sexual assault goes underreported, Jamie Wald, a sexual assault nurse examiner at Altru Health System, said the shame and embarrassment of sexual assault plays a role.

"I think there's more of a stigma, so I think they're less likely to report," she said.

Donna Smith, the UND Title IX director, said victims often grapple with defining what happened to them and thereby may not even think to report it.

"One thing that people struggle with is that label of sexual assault and what that means and coming to the realization that an experience they had they maybe didn't think of in the lens of sexual assault or violence," she said. "That goes for both the survivor and the perpetrator. They don't think of their actions or experiences as violent or wrong or anything other than, 'This is college.'"

The UND survey showed that in addition to that 1 percent who experienced sexual assault, 7.3 percent of female respondents had experienced sexual touching without their consent, as had 3.7 percent of male respondents.

Also, 2.2 percent of female respondents reported being in a sexually abusive intimate relationship, as did 0.6 percent of males.

"Sexual assault affects everybody in the community," Plummer said. "It's a personal crime. It is occurring within our community, and we have to get people to not ignore the fact that ... this is something that can occur every single night in our communities. We just don't hear about it."

Students at UND have a variety of ways to handle a sexual assault through criminal or administrative disciplinary action.

If a victim chooses to pursue criminal prosecution, university police handle the case as long as it is within their jurisdiction and bring criminal charges through the state's attorney's office. Students can file a criminal complaint and pursue legal action, report the incident and not pursue legal action, or file an anonymous report.

If a victim chooses to pursue action from within the university, the Dean of Students office investigates the case. From 2011 through 2013, three cases were brought through the administrative disciplinary process and all three resulted in suspension.

As her department is part of a federal effort to address sexual crimes on campuses, Smith said the university gathers information about the case through interviews and any police reports available if the student chose to also speak with them about the incident. Cara Halgren, the dean of students, then decides whether or not the case warrants the most severe punishment of expulsion and if so, the case goes before the Student Relations Committee, which makes the ultimate decision.

"Throughout that process, we're very careful to make sure both parties have the same rights," Smith said. "Both can bring an advisor if they want and both have the option to appeal when the hearing process is finished."

Students can also appeal the decisions made by the Dean of Students.

The committee is appointed annually and consists of three faculty and three student members who have all received training on how to handle sexual assault complaints.

Mendick has worked at the Women's Center since 1998 and said she has dealt with the issue several times during her time there. She said every case is unique.

"The students that I've had the privilege to work with either as a personal advisor or someone who they've come to for information, if they have decided to participate in that hearing process as a witness or any capacity, they walk away feeling as if they had reclaimed a piece of what was taken from them," Mendick said. "It's a chance for them to talk about their experience."

Altru sexual assault nurse examiners are also available 24 hours per day, seven days per week to perform rape kits free of charge or refer patients to counseling and other services.