Texas State University admitted to severely underreporting the number of sexual assaults on its San Marcos campus for the 2016 and 2017 school years.
The school had originally reported just eight cases but now says the real number was 38.
While that discrepancy is shocking on its own, some experts think the real number of sexual assaults on campus that go unreported may be much higher, and that the issue extends far beyond Texas State.
—Texas Tribune (@TexasTribune) October 1, 2019
In a statement provided to The Texas Tribune on Monday, Texas State University said its old crime reporting system "did not produce accurate statistics." While the school said it had made efforts to improve its reporting, the inaccurate data may have violated US law.
Schools can face million-dollar fines for misreporting crime data on campus
Under The Clery Act, schools are required to accurately report student crime data and properly warn students of potential threats. The act was created in 1990 as an amendment to Title IX — which is meant to protect people from sexual discrimination — and was named after Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student who was raped and killed at the school in 1986.
Schools found to have violated the Clery Act can face stiff fines. A single violation can cost a school $53,907, but in some more egregious cases, that penalty can soar much higher.
Last October, the Department of Education fined the University of Montana nearly $1 million for reporting "inaccurate and misleading data," on a number of crime statistics, including sexual assault.
Two years before that, the Department of Education issued its largest fine to date for a Clery Act violation, levied against the University of Pennsylvania. That fine, which came out to $2.4 million, was issued for the school's "chronic" violations and were related to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that rocked the university.
The Department of Education did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment about what penalties Texas State University could face, but in a statement provided to The Texas Tribune, said it has a "longstanding policy not to comment on institutional oversight activities, program reviews, or investigations — including the acknowledgment that they exist — until the outcome officially has been communicated to the institution."
A Texas State University official also told The Tribune that they had set up an internal Clery compliance committee to prevent future violations.
The Texas State case points to a broader issue of universities struggling to accurately report sexual assaults
While the Pennsylvania and Montana examples stand out as exceptions, a quick look at self-reported sexual assault data from universities make it appear as if rape on campus is almost nonexistent.
In an interview with Insider, Deborah Vagins, senior vice president for research and public policy at the American Association of University Women, said a whopping a 89% of nearly 11,000 US campuses her organization reviewed had self-reported zero instances of sexual assault on their campuses.
Yet, when undergraduate women were independently asked in a survey whether they had ever experienced a sexual assault, 23.1% said they had.
While Vagins didn't comment on the Texas State case specifically, she said this apparent gulf in real sexual assaults and what universities report can arise from a number of factors, including procedural gaps in reporting and a general reluctance by schools to get involved.
"There's currently a reluctance on the part of institutions to be associated with these problems, or some combination of all of the factors," Vagins said.
There are other reasons, less in the university's control, that can contribute to obscuring the real number of sexual assaults on campus. According to Department of Justice data collected between 1995 and 2013, 26% of students who reported experiencing sexual assault said they did not report the incident to officials because they considered it a "personal manner."
In that same study, one in five students said they didn't report their sexual assault out of fear of reprisal, and 9% said they thought the police wouldn't take them seriously.
"Regardless of the reasons, educational institutions have a legal responsibility to monitor, disclose, and respond to sexual harassment and assault," Vagins said.
Though universities may be unable to accurately report every incident of sexual assault on campus, Vagins said there's still much that can be improved. These improvements could come in the form of clearer mechanisms for students reporting sexual assaults, and implementation of student "climate surveys," that regularly poll students to determine whether or not they are aware of the ways they can report incidents.
"Schools need to have clear mechanisms that are understood, and someone responsible for reporting," Vagins said.
Texas State University did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit hotline.rainn.org/online and receive confidential support.