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Acts of violence and sexual assault at New Jersey’s colleges and other post-secondary schools were higher in 2015 than a year earlier, which could be a positive sign that victims are feeling more comfortable in coming forward and reporting incidents.
The data are timely, as former Vice President Joe Biden visited Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus last week and told students that non-consensual sex is assault and urged them to support victims and to create an environment in which sexual violence is not tolerated.
“We’ll have succeeded in this fight when not a single one of you, when not a single woman who is abused or raped ever asks herself what did I do,” Biden told a crowd of more than 2,000 students as part of the national “It’s On Us” campaign to end sexual assault on campuses. “Listen to me, I promise you, we can change the culture.”
The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education count 197 sexual crimes committed on New Jersey campuses and at school-affiliated locations in 2015, the most recent year available — an increase of roughly a quarter over 2014. Incidents of violence against women also rose over the same period by about 45 percent to 448 in 2015.
Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the increases don’t necessarily mean that more incidents are happening.
Rape, the most common crime
“Colleges and universities are microcosms of our larger society — and we’re certainly seeing an upswing in awareness and reporting of sexual violence across the board,” she said. “We know that higher numbers of reported incidents at a college or university don’t mean an institution is unsafe. Rather, that reflects an open culture where reporting is encouraged and survivors know they’ll be believed and the system will take them seriously … Many survivors do not disclose for many years, if ever. Campuses that have created a culture of trust are doing something right.”
Rape was the most common crime, with 119 reported in 2015. The vast majority occurred on school campuses and almost nine in 10 occurred in student housing. Another 65 cases of fondling were reported by students.
There is some overlap in the reporting of acts of violence against women, though it is impossible to know how many. It is likely that many of the 86 cases of dating violence in 2015 were rapes that were also reported as crimes. Domestic violence incidents were most prevalent, with 268 cases reported. Students reported 74 instances of stalking.
Schools are required to report acts of violence, sexual assault, and other crimes under the Clery Act, signed into law in 1990 after Jeanne Clery was assaulted and murdered while at college in Pennsylvania. Research, however, has shown that most acts of sexual violence are not being counted, according to the New Jersey Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault report released earlier this year. That’s often because victims fail to report crimes because they are unsure of their rights.
Unwanted sexual contact
“Higher education is an opportunity to enjoy a time of self-exploration with the goal of enlightenment,” the report states. “Students, full of hope and promise, enter college anxious to discover their true potential … Too often they encounter a brutal reality for which they are ill-prepared to cope.”
Nationally, an estimated 20 percent of undergraduate women experience sexual violence while on college campuses, most often in their freshman year.
That jibes with a survey Rutgers University conducted several years ago that found one in five female undergrads had experienced some unwanted sexual conduct since arriving at Rutgers.
As the state’s largest university, it is not surprising that the most incidents were reported by Rutgers main campus in New Brunswick and Piscataway: 47 criminal offenses and 119 Violence Against Women Act offenses in 2015. That number declined last year, according to Rutgers’ statistics, to 31 criminal and 93 VAWA offenses.
Rutgers launched plan to combat assaults
“Rutgers has been recognized as a national leader on sexual violence education, prevention and response by the Association of American Universities, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and most recently by former Vice President Joe Biden during his campus visit last week,” said Neal Buccino, a Rutgers spokesman.
The university earlier this year announced a federal Victims of Crime Act grant that — when combined with university funds — will total more than $2.5 million to fund services, training, and education related to sexual violence prevention on all campuses. It has also launched a plan to combat assaults and the End Sexual Violence website to provide one source of information on the topic.
Teffenhart said the task force report has been well-received by the colleges, providing them with a blueprint for action. “Policy makers, as well as campus administrators, will continue to use the recommendations of the Task Force to strengthen our sexual violence prevention and response infrastructure,” she said. “Some of this may be done legislatively, but the reality is that campuses don’t need to wait for new laws to be passed to take steps to protect their students.”
In its report, the task force made a dozen recommendations. These include:
“Rutgers is currently following a number of the NJ Task Force report’s recommendations and has appointed two advisory boards which will review the report and its recommendations to assess how they can enhance our response to and prevention of sexual violence,” Buccino said.
“The Task Force hopes that this report will help institutions of higher education enhance the safety of students on campus, assist students affected by sexual violence, and create healthier campus communities built on respect,” its report concludes.