Beyond the timely warning emails: Tracking sexual assault on campus

Back in early September,  just two weeks into the new school year, the Department of Public Safety sent two campus-wide emails regarding reports of sexual assault on campus. The “timely warning” emails that all Boise State students and staff  become well acquainted with are required by federal law and Boise State policy to provide information when potential threats are present. 

The September emails warned about possible assaults on campus and provided  “safety tips” for students.  But the emails come and go, leaving many to wonder about what’s really happening on campus. Is sexual assault on the rise and what is the university doing to combat it?

Since the fall semester started, students have already reported two cases of sexual battery, two cases of sexual assault and one case of rape, according to the campus crime log. Considering that nearly 80% of sexual assaults go unreported nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, three reported cases of sexual assault could represent a much larger problem at Boise State. 

Making sense of the problem

The email alerts are common at the start of a new semester, as a large portion of assaults take place in September and December. According to John Kaplan, the executive director of public safety, holidays and changes such as the start of a new semester can lead to an increase in crime.

“Sometimes, for whatever reason, we see a cluster of reports. It might be the first semester and we see a number of reports at a particular time,” Kaplan said. “Statistics indicate that particularly for first-year students in the first six weeks are the most dangerous. So, this cluster of reports in the fall is consistent with the research.” 

Although the first six weeks are the most vulnerable, movements such as #MeToo and students being more aware of the services offered on campus could lead to an increase in reports in general, according to Alicia Estey, Boise State’s chief of staff and chief of compliance.  

“An increase in reports does not necessarily correlate with an increase in incidents,” Estey said. “It could be that people are more aware of our services, they may have heard that people were treated respectfully during this process, they might tell other students that. (This makes) our students more inclined to file a report and participate in the process.”

The Idaho legislature defines sexual battery as deliberate physical contact with an intimate part of a person without consent. Sexual assault, more commonly defined as sexual abuse in Idaho, is unwanted sexual contact. Rape is defined as penetration without consent. 

Campus crime logs from 2016 to 2019 show fluctuation in the number of reported cases. 2016 accounted for 15 rapes and one attempted rape, one case of sexual exploitation of a child and one case of sexual penetration with a foreign object. In 2017, nine rape cases and four sexual assault cases were reported. 2018 included two rape cases and two sexual assault cases. In 2019, four rape cases, two cases of sexual battery and two cases of sexual assault have occurred so far.

The start of the 2019 school year showed a spike in emails, as it typically does yearly. With an increase in emails, it is important to understand why they are distributed. 

Clery Act and Title IX

Timely warning emails are distributed because of a federal law called the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics, better known as the Clery Act. The Clery Act was enacted in 1990, and all college campuses that receive federal funding are required to abide by it. The law states that campuses receiving funding must be transparent about certain crimes; this includes sexual assaults. 

The emails Boise State sends are part of the Clery Act. The university understands that an email describing sexual assault cases can be triggering, but the emails have been modified in recent years. 

“Over time, it has shifted from a more victim-blaming language like, lock your car and walk with a friend… to more thinking about perpetrator behaviors like, don’t do these things,” said Adriane Bang, director of the Gender Equity Center. 

The Clery Act, however, does not work alone. Title IX is a law meant to prevent gender-based discrimination, but the law also addresses any sort of sexual violence. Boise State has a Title IX coordinator position. This job requires the hire to ensure the campus community understands their obligations under Policy 1065 — Boise State’s sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking policy. When there is a report of a violation, their role is to investigate and take corrective action. 

Estey is filling in for a position which has been vacant since November 2016. According to Estey, there have been four or five failed searches to find a permanent hire, and this is not uncommon. 

10 years ago, most Title IX offices looked completely different. The offices were best known for their role in promoting gender equality in athletics programs. The Obama administration changed this in 2011 and pushed colleges to create a system for sexual misconduct with Title IX coordinators in charge. Since this shift, many colleges have struggled to keep this position filled. 

“It’s a difficult position to hire for. It’s agonizing work, to be honest with you. It’s kind of unrelenting. Our salaries in Idaho don’t keep pace with other states,” Estey said. “There is nobody in Idaho who has the skill set already [who is not currently employed]. We have to recruit out of state and have struggled. We are getting ready to bring in an interim Title IX coordinator from an organization whose whole purpose is to provide interim Title IX coordinators who are very experienced.”

Combating sexual assault

Timely warning emails are not always followed by updated information. According to Estey, this is largely due to the university wanting students to read these emails; if too many are sent out, they may be disregarded.

While Estey and the Department of Public Safety are cautious about the number of emails they choose to send out, Boise State is taking other actions to help combat sexual assault and raise awareness. 

Former Associated Students of Boise State University (ASBSU) president Sienna George started the initiative “Not Silent Because.” The hashtag campaign ran at a home football game, and featured students discussing their refusal to be silent about their sexual assault stories. 

Current ASBSU president Kaleb Smith wants to start a campaign that continues throughout the year and reaches more of the student body. As a student himself, Smith hears talk about the emails and has ideas about how they could resonate better with the campus, such as helping campus better understand the process of reporting sexual assault. 

“There are people who go through the process and it’s real tough… if you file a claim… no one is educated on (the process),” Smith said. “When you’re in the middle of an investigation, you are not allowed to say anything to anybody. So, everyone’s like, ‘I want more transparency in this…the only transparency we can give you is to educate how the process works.’” 

Campaigns and initatives are only a small part of what the Boise State community is doing to combat sexual assault. The Gender Equity Center offers resources for victims, which can include counseling, referrals, and medical assistance.

“We’ve just started a community coordinated response team. This is something a lot of other universities have well established,” Bang said. “You might recognize something similar in our care team, but this team is less focused on case review and more focused on prevention and  education… looking more holistically at something rather than reactively.”

Outside of the Gender Equity Center, Boise State has counseling services, Title IX and Campus Security working diligently to make students and victims feel safe. Campus Security has made updates on campus, such as installing cameras and lights behind buildings to make walking home at night safer. 

The process of combating sexual assault proves to be difficult, especially when most sexual assaults don’t happen by strangers, but by a person the victim knows. Boise State focuses on prevention rather than combat; this comes in the form of training for incoming students, training for employees and different marketing tools that provide the campus with information. 

“We push out as much information as we possibly can to raise awareness, to help people understand what our policy says talk about consent,” Estey said. “We do a lot of outreach, but we can always do more. What tends to happen is that our time gets sucked up with the investigations. Of course, those are the priority if there’s an ongoing investigation. So sometimes our outreach efforts suffer because we’re bogged down with investigations.” 

Estey says anyone is free to talk to the Title IX office about an assault without having to go through the entire process or worry about them reporting the assault unless the case signifies a threat to the campus; the university may then be required to report the crime.

Sexual assault is still largely unreported and the stories beyond the emails remain unknown. But as the conversation continues as students become more aware of the process and prevention strategies.SHARE.

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