Sexual assault reporting a campus priority

Emma Finkbeiner

Reported on-campus criminal sexual conduct numbers appear high at NMU compared to Michigan universities similar in enrollment figures and size, but university officials are prepared to defend the numbers.

In fact, they say they see this level of reporting as evidence that NMU’s campus culture surrounding sexual assault empowers victims to report and utilize resources offered to them.

“By reporting, we are able to provide support and resources and prevent assaults in the future,” said Mary Brundage, associate dean of students. “If students don’t report, how can we properly educate other students on campus about the issue?”re1-sexual assault graphic

Brundage is the point of contact in the dean of students office who deals with sexual assault investigations. She works closely with Public Safety and the Title IX office on these investigations. She said when she offers to meet with students who have been sexually assaulted, nearly every person accepts.

In accordance with the Jeanne Clery Act of 1990, all universities are required to report crime statistics annually. Fines for each instance of non-compliance with Clery reporting can be as high as $35,000, according to Mincheff, and violations can also threaten federal funding. In 2014, there were 14 reported cases of criminal sexual conduct on NMU’s campus, double that of 2013, according to Clery crime statistics. In comparison, Saginaw Valley State University reported one instance of criminal sexual conduct in 2014 and Michigan Tech University reported three instances.

“We don’t want people to be afraid to come forward and report,” said Jeff Mincheff, NMU Public Safety Clery compliance officer. “It’s important that they know we’re here for them.”

Administrators, Public Safety officers, health promotions employees and other officials at NMU that are involved in sexual assault education, prevention and reporting say they are not afraid of the university’s numbers.

“We’ve always been on the premise that honesty is the best policy, and we put our numbers out there,” Mincheff said. “In speaking with the Department of Education, which I did just last week, we were told to keep doing what we’re doing and that’s reassuring.”

A study conducted by the American Association of University Women, which utilized data from Clery Act reporting, found that “91 percent of institutions reported zero instances of rape on campus in 2014.” Comparatively, a study released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that “10.3 percent of female students experienced sexual assault” during the 2014-15 academic year. And yet, a third study by the Association of American Universities showed that only 10 percent of assaults are reported to law enforcement officials.

Like many universities, NMU has a long list of educational programs and prevention efforts on the topic of sexual assault. Though many university offices get involved, including Housing and Residence Life and Public Safety, the Health Promotions Office (HPO) plays a role in many of these programs both directly and indirectly. Their main initiative is interactive presentations given in UN 100 classes.

Health promotions specialist Lenny Shible estimated HPO was invited into 80 percent of UN 100 classrooms to give interactive presentations during the 2015-16 academic year. Shible said the only landmark change made to the presentation since they began in 2000 has been to the sexual assault scenario that reinforces that the survivor is not at fault. Originally, this scenario had a female victim and male perpetrator but now it is completely gender neutral, utilizing gender neutral names.

“It sets up a really good discussion because someone always notices it,” said Megan McCormick, an HPO student health educator. “I’m really glad we did it because we get so much more out of that presentation and story because we can talk about gender specifically.”

With help from offices like the dean of students, HPO hosted a screening of “The Hunting Ground,” a 2015 documentary about the issue of sexual assault on campus, this fall semester. With the increased visibility of the issue, especially in the media, because of the documentary, more conversations have been raised on campus.

“When people know that our campus thinks this is important and we’re willing to talk about it, then people are more likely to report,” McCormick said. “If you’re silent, then it’s not an issue.”

HPO employees said it is better to have a more accurate view of reported sexual assaults on campus as it helps to prevent the crime and find repeat offenders.

“People are gaining confidence in reporting, and I think ‘The Hunting Ground’ has an affect on that and the fact that we keep talking about it and are battling rape myths has an affect on that,” McCormick said. “They know that the faculty and staff are going to have their backs.”

Education regarding resources and processes for reporting is also important to creating a campus culture that feels safe and supportive, said student health educator Ashley McShort.

“If people don’t know what their options are or where to begin to get resources, they won’t move forward,” McShort said.

Part of Mincheff’s job includes educating campus security authorities (CSA)—which includes university employees in athletics, student organization advising and more—about dealing with and reporting sexual assault complaints. There are nearly 400 official CSAs, defined in the Clery Act required Annual Security Report as “campus personnel who have specific responsibilities to take action when receiving notice of a crime” on NMU’s campus.

“It’s a work in progress and it’s constant training,” Mincheff said.

All relevant parties at NMU agreed that in comparison to other universities, NMU’s reported sexual assaults appear high. However, NMU officials said that the reported numbers do not reflect a higher rate of sexual assault, but a higher rate of reported sexual assaults. Officials said they prefer this to low numbers other universities report because it allows them to reach the campus community and offer resources to survivors.

“It’s nice to bring focus during Sexual Assault Awareness Month,” Shible said. “But for us, we’re doing sexual assault prevention every day, and many other departments are involved in that. That’s the mentality we need to get to so that it’s not just one day, one week or one month a year. We’re constantly trying to find other ways that the conversation can continue.”