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Why the Increase in Sexual Assaults Reported by Schools?

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Among the increases noted in last week's annual crime and violence survey was a jump in the number of schools reporting sexual assault nationwide.

The report, "Crime, Violence, Discipline, and Safety in U.S. Public Schools: Findings From the School Survey on Crime and Safety: 2017-18," found that 5.2 percent of surveyed schools reported an incident of sexual assault other than rape. That added up to a total of 7,100 recorded incidents in the 2017-18 academic year.

That's a significant increase compared to the previous report for the 2015-16 academic year, when 3.4 percent of schools reported sexual assault other than rape for a total of  6,100 incidents.

As stated in the report, the data was collected by surveying principals or other school officials knowledgeable about school crime and policies across a nationally representative, stratified, random sample of 4,803 public schools.

A total of 2,762 primary, middle, high and combined schools completed the questionnaire. The survey also provided specific definitions for serious violent incidents like sexual assault other than rape, such as "threatened rape, fondling, indecent liberties, or child molestation."

Meanwhile, the report found that incidents of rape or attempted rape at public schools remained at practically identical rates from one survey to the next. In 2017-18, 0.9 percent of the surveyed schools recorded 1,100 incidents. The same percentage—0.9 percent—recorded 1,100 incidents in the 2015-16 academic year.

Although the identical numbers might seem unlikely, researchers said it's a result of rounding up for accurate measurement. There are actual differences between each year in the number of recorded incidents, said Rachel Hansen, the project officer for the School Survey on Crime and Safety. "Incident counts for both years round to 1,100. However, the unrounded counts do differ slightly as well," she said.

Since the emergence of the #MeToo movement in 2017, institutions across the country have had to reckon with the realities of sexualized violence in their spaces. While much of the national narrative has focused on the entertainment industry, there has been work across public schools to shed light on rape and sexual assault. 

The new data comes at a time where students across the country feel more empowered to come forward with their experiences. However, it's difficult for the report to take this into account.

"The SSOCS questionnaire is not designed to measure factors contributing to changes in incidents reporting," said Hansen.

However, experts say that in general awareness of sexual assault has allowed students to better understand their own experiences and come forward.

"So it may be that actual sexual assault has increased, or it may be just that, because kids might be more aware because of that #MeToo, they are reporting," said Charol Shakeshaft, a researcher in educator sexual misconduct and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"The #MeToo movement has provided a way for more people to be able to understand their own experiences, within a framework that goes beyond being bullied," said Shakeshaft. "For instance, a lot of kids just sort of say, 'Well, this is what school is like, this is what people do, that's just bullying. But a lot of the bullying is sexualized bullying."

While it's difficult for the report to measure how outside factors contribute to reporting rates, advocacy groups like the American Association of University Women argue that schools continue to struggle with accurately reporting incidents of sexual abuse or assault.

Despite increases in training for both students and educators, schools might not be prepared to distinguish between sexualized violence and bullying, which can cause inaction.

"A lot of times school employees minimize the sexual assault and harassment of students," said Shakeshaft. "I'm not sure how adults have changed in terms of their views of what goes on among kids."

Image: Getty

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