HBCU Sexual Assault Study Released

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Often precipitated by the consumption of alcohol, attempted or completed sexual assaults directly affect about 14 percent of all female students on the campuses of historically Black colleges and universities, but the attacks often go unreported due to shame, guilt or fear.

Such were among the key findings of a newly released report titled “The Historically Black College and University Campus Sexual Assault Study.”

Prepared by the Research Triangle International for the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, the report provides a detailed statistical look at HBCU sexual assaults and offers insights on how students can more effectively curtail the problem.

Dr. Boyce Williams, senior vice president and chief operating officer at the the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher education, says the study underscores the need for HBCU administrators to be proactive about confronting sexual assaults on campus.

“We need to make sure that when we hire and when we have people in residence life and student life and even when we elect our student government, these are areas that we either ask them to be cognizant or offer training in … because it is a crisis,” says Williams.

She says silence and fear are among the biggest enemies.

Amelia J. Cobb, the director of Ending Violence Against Women: The HBCU Project, voiced similar concerns with commenting directly on the report. The Washington, D.C.-based initiative has sites at half a dozen HBCUs.

“All universities need to have five or six key departments at minimum to be involved in developing a protocol for addressing violence against women on campuses,” says Cobb. “They include the student health center, campus police, student housing and residence life, the counseling center, the judicial board and the office for student services and disabilities.”

The study — based on a 2008 survey of 3,951 undergraduate women at four unidentified HBCUs — found that victims reported their experiences to crisis centers and law enforcement at “very low rates.” For instance, while the vast majority of victims of forced sexual assault and incapacitated sexual assault — 69.2 percent and 55.7 percent, respectively — disclosed the incident to “someone close,” only 13.9 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively, contacted a victim’s crisis or health center. Similarly, only 9.9 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively, reported the incident to law enforcement. Common reasons cited for not reporting the assaults ranged from not wanting anyone to know to fear of reprisal to not thinking the assault was serious enough.

“These results suggest that perhaps something can and should be done to encourage or increase reporting so more perpetrators are prosecuted, more victims receive the services they need, and fewer instances of sexual assault occur,” the report states. “Improving the relationships among campus service providers, law enforcement and students may be one way to improve communication among these groups and ultimately increase the rate of reporting, the number of investigations and prosecutions, and the number of victims receiving services.”

Cobb suggests that HBCUs put more information in the public domain around the issue of sexual assault, such as making their campus police Web pages friendlier to students.

” There is often underreporting on all college campuses, and HBCUs are no different.” Cobb says.

In examining risk factors, the RTI report found that the majority of sexual assaults experienced by HBCU women are associated with the use of alcohol or other drugs. The report found that 75.6 percent of all victims of incapacitated sexual assault had been drinking prior to the incident, as were 23.1 percent of all victims of forced sexual assault.

“One implication is the need to address the risks of substance use, particularly the risk of drinking to excess, in sexual assault prevention and risk reduction messages presented to students,” reads the report. “Another implication worth mentioning is that DFSA (drug-facilitated sexual assault) seems to be extremely rare among HBCU students.

“Universities should fully and directly address the dangers of alcohol use rather than focusing on the rare phenomenon of DFSA and coercive drug ingestion.”

The report also stated that attending fraternity parties and sorority membership were risk factors for experiencing both forced and incapacitated sexual assault.

“The goal is really not to tell women to not drink. The goal is not to tell them that fraternities are out to victimize them,” says Dr. Christopher P. Krebs, a senior research social scientist at RTI and a co-author of the report. “I think that the goal is to simply explain that we know that there are perpetrators in the world, and it’s about making sure that you’re doing what you can to avoid being in situations in which you’re vulnerable.”

The report recommends better educating students about what constitutes a sexual assault and making them aware of on- and off-campus resources for sexual assault victims. It also recommends ensuring that crisis centers and police have appropriate protocols in place to accommodate the needs of sexual assault victims.

Forthcoming research indicates that completed sexual assaults are rarer at HBCUs than at traditionally White institutions. According to a draft of an unpublished report obtained by Diverse, 9.7 percent of female HBCU undergraduates report experiencing a completed sexual assault since entering college. The rate is 13.7 percent at non-HBCUs. The authors of the paper link the lower rate among HBCU women with their lower alcohol consumption patterns.

According to Krebs, a member of a statewide coalition against sexual assault had raised concerns that HBCUs often relied on data from non-HBCUs and didn’t have a clear picture of the scope of the problem on their own campuses.

“That planted a seed for us that there might be a need for additional research,” he says.

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