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Few sex crimes reported annually

Kaitlynn Riely | Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Rape and sexual assault are the most underreported crimes in the U.S., said a representative from S-O-S of Madison Center, the St. Joseph County rape crisis center in South Bend – and judging from statistics, Notre Dame is no exception to this statement.

While Notre Dame Security/Police (NDSP) statistics from 2003-05 show just one to two incidents of reported sex offenses each year – more recent numbers aren’t available, but there were two more just last week – 61 students reported “some kind of victimization experience” to the University Counseling Center last year, according to Rita Donley, the Center’s associate director.

These incidents may include sexual assault, rape, unwanted sexual contact or childhood sexual abuse, she said in an e-mail. This number does not reflect the instances of sexual assault that occur on campus, Donley said, since students may come to the Counseling Center to talk about another issue and bring up past instances of sexual assault.

Still, there’s a significant gap between a few incidents and the dozens that are reported to the Counseling Center. “Loyal Daughters,” a play performed last fall written by senior Emily Weisbecker, featured real stories from Notre Dame students and pointed at the discrepancy between reported and non-reported cases – something also attested to by Associate Vice President for Residence Life Bill Kirk.

“For various reasons … the reporting on this doesn’t reflect what I think is very legitimately the occurrence of this crime on campus and off,” he said.

So why don’t victims always report?

A victim of sexual offenses might not tell police or officials because he or she is afraid the authorities will not believe the report, Donley said. Another common deterrent is when too much time has passed and there is no physical evidence, so the victim may think it is not worth pursuing.

Other reasons include shame, embarrassment and “fear that the process will feel victimizing too,” she said.

Ava Preacher, the victim’s resource person for the University, can provide students or interested parties with information about the procedure that will follow if a student reports a sex offense to University officials or NDSP. Preacher estimated she receives approximately 12-to-15 calls each school year about sexual offense incidents.

But Preacher said she rarely gets calls from a student right after an incident occurs. Rather, she more often receives them throughout the year, sometimes from the victim, other times from friends or rectors.

S-O-S of Madison Center Assistant Director and Therapist Crystal Whitlow said Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students – mostly females – come to S-O-S to use their counseling services, but also said these may not be recent cases, but incidents that occurred in the past which the student is just starting to address.

“Between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, we have seen dozens of victims in the last year,” Whitlow said.

In most of the cases S-O-S employees see, the incident is acquaintance rape.

“Usually alcohol is frequently involved, but almost always the person is known to the victim,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Post Secondary Education maintains an online database that shows crime statistics from colleges throughout the United States. Notre Dame, a school with a reported population of 11,479, had one forcible sexual offense in 2003, two in 2004 and one in 2005, all on campus.

The Web site defines a forcible sex offense as “any sexual act directed against another person, forcibly and/or against that person’s will; or not forcibly or against the person’s will where the victim is incapable of giving consent.” This includes forcible rape, sodomy or fondling and sexual assault with an object.

Boston College, a school with a reported population of 14,561, had 10 reported sex offenses in 2003, five in 2004 and nine in 2005. In 2004 and 2005, two of these offenses occurred on public property each year.

University of Dayton, with a reported population of 10,495, had 13 reported sex offenses in 2003, 14 in 2004 and 12 in 2005. One of the reported offenses in 2003, four in 2004 and two in 2005 occurred on public property.

But Kirk said it’s hard to compare statistics and say Notre Dame has relatively little incidents of sexual assault, due to the difference in campuses, the different residence life systems and the frequently unreported nature of sexual assault.

“If you compare our data with other campuses, we’d look good,” Kirk said. “… But the last thing we’d want to do is get a false sense of confidence because our numbers are very low compared to other schools.”

But Notre Dame is trying to combat the silence of sexual assault by making resources readily available for students.

Kirk and Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Ann Firth are co-chairs of the Sexual Assault Advisory Committee, which Preacher said is changing its name to the Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention. The goal of this group, which includes faculty, staff and students, is to work on sexual assault prevention and education and improve University response to incidents, she said.

Donley said it is never “easy” to for a victim of sexual assault to come forward, but said the University has proved several outlets – from services like Residence Life, the Gender Resource Center and the Counseling Center – for students to use.

Assistant Director for NDSP David Chapman encouraged students who are victims of sexual assault to seek help from the police and other counseling services.

“We want the young victims to know that they are in control of the situation and we are there to help them,” Chapman said.

NDSP sent e-mails to the student body last week announcing two separate incidents of sexual offenses – a forcible fondling sex offense and a sexual assault – that occurred within a few days of each other.