Safe at college: Campuses must cut the rate of sexual assault

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Parents sending a daughter off to college worry about a lot of things. How will she perform in the challenging classes? How will she handle the freedom to eat, sleep, study and play when she chooses?

While parents have long lists of concerns, one of the most threatening possibilities on campus receives little attention — that their daughter will be raped.

A recent White House report revealed that a staggering one in five female students reported being the victim of a sexual assault. Worse, only one in eight student victims report the crime.

Among all universities reporting forcible sex offenses, the number grew from 2,986 in 2010 to 3,948 in 2012, according to data reported by the schools under the Clery Act, which requires them to document campus crime. Experts believe those numbers vastly underestimate the prevalence of sexual assaults on campus.

President Barack Obama made an impassioned plea for change, calling on young people to acknowledge that sexual assault is unacceptable and urging them to “summon the bravery to stand up and say so.” He set up a task force to develop recommendations to prevent and respond to the crime, increase public awareness of schools’ track records and make sure federal agencies are providing oversight.

In that regard, the U.S. Education Department has notified Penn State University that yet another investigation will be conducted into sexual assault cases on its main campus.

Where Penn State reported only four such attacks in 2010, and 24 incidents in 2011, the number leaped to 56 in 2012. At the time those latest figures were released, Penn State officials said half of the incidents actually took place much earlier, sometime between 1970 and 2011. That means at least some of those cases most likely were child sexual assaults perpetrated by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, now imprisoned for his crimes. 

It’s too soon to know just what, if anything concrete, may come of another probe at Penn State. What is clear — if the nation wants to reduce the attacks that ruin the lives of young women, and men, every year on college campuses — is the importance of determining why sexual assaults occur and often go unreported.

As Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote last Sunday in the Post-Gazette’s Forum section, “No parent should ever fear for a child’s safety when he or she departs for college.”

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