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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Western sexual assault numbers indicate underreporting

Content warning: This story contains references to sexual assault.

Written by: Laura Place

The official university data for statistics of sexual assault involving Western students may underrepresent the problem.

The annual Security and Fire Safety Report compiled by the university shows a total of 19 reported cases of various forms of forcible sexual experiences from 2013-2015, with five specified instances of rape.  

However, results from a 2016 Western Campus Climate survey show underreporting is a significant issue. Around nine out of 10 of the 422 total sexual assault cases involving Western students reported in the survey were unreported to any particular Western Entity.

Numbers in the safety report also leave out off-campus incidents, which made up nearly 75 percent of incidents involving students reported in the survey. 

In addition, incidences of rape within the annual reports may be higher, as rape was not tracked as a category on its own before the Violence Against Women Act in 2015. Before then, incidents of rape were grouped under the category of “forcible sex offenses,” which also included attempted rape, forcible sodomy and forcible fondling.

The Campus Climate survey was sent to the student body in May 2016 by Western’s Office of Survey Research. It was completed by 958 students, or around 6.7 percent of Western’s student body. The survey’s summary emphasized that due to the low response rate it was not possible to generalize conclusions for the survey results.

University Director of Communications and Marketing Paul Cocke emphasized that data from the report could not be generalized.

“The Security and Fire Safety Report and the Sexual Violence Climate Survey are two different data sets and the University collects these data in very different ways,” Cocke said in an email. “The scope of data contained in the Security and Fire Safety Report is governed by the Clery Act, a federal law that requires collecting and sharing data about specific crimes that occur on and immediately adjacent to Western’s campus.”

A closer look at rates of students who access sexual assault resources puts the larger issue of sexual assault into perspective.


The number of students accessing sexual assault resources on campus greatly outweighs the number of cases that end up being reported.

Consultation and Sexual Assault Support, or CASAS, is Western’s main confidential resource for students who experience some form of sexual assault. It also offers services for survivors of other types of violence including domestic violence.

In the 2015 calendar year, 142 students accessed CASAS resources, according to documents obtained by The Western Front from a public records request. However, their were only 11 reports of forcible sex offenses in that year’s safety report.

For the past five years, the number of students accessing CASAS resources per quarter has been between 25 and 48 students. As of the end of winter quarter this year, 82 students have accessed these services, with 37 students accessing during fall quarter and 45 in the winter.

Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services, or DVSAS, is a local nonprofit that provides support services. Karen Burke, executive director of DVSAS, said obstacles arise for survivors because they frequently know their assailant.

“I think that victims are worried about long term implications – if they know that person and they report, what will that look like for them?” Burke said. “It’s very frequently within a friend group, or someone in a community that they know casually, and there’s the possibility that they might run into them again. And certainly on a campus, more so.”

Infographic by Layne Carter.

Survey indicates a larger problem

The survey sent in May 2016 found that of students who had an unwanted sexual experience, 83 percent (350 out of 420) said it was perpetrated by someone they knew, and 61 percent (258 out of 421) said it was perpetrated by another Western student.

Similar to CASAS records, student responses to the survey point to higher rates of sexual violence than in the university’s Safety Report.

The report was featured in Washington State’s 2016 Campus Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force Report. The report compiled sexual violence information from various universities across the state.

The report states that 14.32 percent of female respondents (121 out of 845) and 18.87 percent of transgender respondents (10 out of 53) experienced non-consensual vaginal penetration when they were too intoxicated to stop what was going on.

Non-consensual vaginal penetration that occurred specifically through force was reported by 59 women respondents (59 out of 838) and 8 transgender students (8 out of 52) who responded to the study.

The Campus Climate report goes on to say that of all the students who reported unwanted sexual experiences in the survey, 8 percent ended up reported to Western resources.

Somewhere within the process of accessing resources and deciding whether or not to take further action, reports are shrinking dramatically.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, reports that four out of five female student survivors (ages 18-24) do not end up reporting sexual assault to law enforcement.

Justine Dombrowski, an advocate for both CASAS and DVSAS, explained the vast number of factors that can act as barriers to reporting. For many victims, there ends up being more reasons not to file a criminal report than there are to proceed, Dombrowski said.

“Honestly, the reporting process is not survivor-centric. It is long, painful and can dredge up old memories and feelings that the survivor may have left behind them,” Dombrowski said. “For someone who has already been through trauma, this is not appealing or necessarily healthy.”

Some people may also choose to file a protection order instead, Dombrowki said.

“Most of what I have seen has been filing for protection orders. In these cases, the perpetrator is not charged with anything and does not have a ‘conviction’ or sentence, but they have restrictions on their freedoms,” Dombrowski said.

Dombrowki described how there are extra sets of barriers faced by male survivors due to masculinity standards that lower reporting numbers. Racial minorities also face more explicit discrimination when reporting, as well as LGBTQ and undocumented people, according to Dombrowski.

According to the survey, the three most common reasons for not reporting to Western and local law enforcement were that students didn’t think the incident was serious enough to report (307 of 395 students), not wanting any action taken (279 of 396 students) and not needing any assistance (240 of 392 students).

Underreporting isn’t the only issue. The Safety Report’s analysis of purely on-campus incidents fails to encapsulate the larger problem of sexual assault experienced by Western students.

Off-campus incidents

The results from the survey indicate that a majority of incidents reported in the survey did not occur on campus.

Results show that 73 percent (305 out 418) of unwanted sexual incidents reported occurred off campus, while 27 percent (113 out of 418) occurred on campus.

Western cases

AS Vice President for Student Life Wayne Rocque said victim blaming has impacted handling of many sexual assault incidents at Western. He cited the Highland break-in as one incident of victim-blaming, as an RA was blamed for not keeping her door locked after an intruder broke into her room and put on her clothes.

“Victim blaming is really what informs rape cultures that exist on campuses across this country,” Rocque said. “Western is not an ivory tower – Western is just as complicit in their lack of engagement with sexual assault survivor protection as other campuses across this country.”

Results from surveys of other universities such as Washington State University and Central Washington University showed similarly low reporting numbers from students who had experienced sexual assault. There was not one universal survey done for all schools, and surveys given at different times of the year influence the degree of student response.

According to WSU survey results, 10.1 percent of students who experienced sexual assault reported telling an administrator, faculty or staff member, and 50 percent of those students found these resources to be helpful. CWU survey results showed that 9 percent of students who experienced sexual assault an incident ended up reporting to university staff or administration.

Cases of sexual assault being mishandled by Western’s administration were brought to light in 2015. Victims alleged that they felt a lack of sensitivity from administrators and felt discouraged to report incidents, as well as feeling uninformed on how verdicts were reached in their cases, according to an article released by the Front.

Cocke said recent improvements have been made to better ensure a safe campus environment.

As of Fall 2016, all sexual assault cases are now handled by the Equal Opportunity Office, and a full-time Title IX coordinator has been hired. Western has also made sexual assault training mandatory for all new students and faculty, and the student conduct code has been revised to better respond to sexual assault incidents, Cocke said.

Students can reach the Title IX Coordinator with questions about sexual violence and sex discrimination, as well as reporting options and resources, at 650-3307. In addition, CASAS’ offices are in OM 585B and can be reached at (360) 650-3700.

Updated June 4 to clarify that survey results cannot be generalized at-large and a response from Paul Cocke.


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