In March 2010, I wrote a story called "What Rape? Vermont's Higher-Ed Institutions Are Underreporting Student Sexual Assaults." The story pointed out that, despite federal mandates under the Clery Act, colleges and universities throughout the Green Mountain State weren't painting an accurate picture of the number of sexual assaults occurring on their campuses.
According to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 20 to 25 percent of all women on college campuses will become the victims of an attempted or completed rape at some point during their college careers. Yet most institutions of higher learning, including the University of Vermont, were reporting numbers far lower than that expected frequency.
An Associated Press story on the wire Monday confirms the findings of my original story. It reports that UVM has come under fire from the U.S. Department of Education for "serious deficiencies" in its reporting of campus crime statistics. Notably, those deficiencies include underreporting of UVM's sexual assault stats.
How "serious" were those deficiencies? I spoke with Gary Derr, UVM's vice president for executive operations, who addressed the reasons for those violations and what UVM has done to correct them.
SEVEN DAYS: Gary, the U.S. Department of Education visited the UVM campus in 2009 and looked at crime statistics dating back to 2007. Why is this issue suddenly making news now?
GARY DERR: In the spring of 2009, UVM was randomly selected by the Department of Education to go through a compliance audit with regards to the Clery Act. A team from the Department of Education came in the summer of 2009... The data we report for the Clery Act is from the calendar year, so at the point when they came we had only reported the 2007 data. Later that year, we would have reported the 2008 data.
A team of three were here for about four days, and at the end of their visit they gave us an informal summary of their findings. In general, they were extremely pleased and impressed with what they found, but they did find areas, deficiencies, whatever you want to call them. They outlined them to us and, immediately following that, we took the necessary steps to make the changes to those findings.
Then in May 2010, roughly 10 months later, we received the official letter from the Department of Education and we were invited to comment and respond to their findings. We sent back our response and indicated that, in each of the five findings, we had already taken steps to correct those findings. Fast forward to the end of April of this year, and they issued the letter that they had five findings and they determined that they were "serious," and had forwarded them on to the Department of Education, Administrative Appeals Division, for any possible administrative action. We were surprised by the letter, considering that all along we felt that the information we had provided them, and their response that we had complied, [were sufficient]. We'll wait and see what the Department of Justice has to say about them.
SD: Had UVM ever undergone this kind of random compliance audit before?
GD: Not for the Clery Act, no. Somebody could contact the U.S. Department of Education and file a complaint about the information we provide... But they said "No, you were randomly selected to be part of this compliance audit." We said, "Fine. Come on up!"
SD: Have you been able to identify why these deficiencies occurred?
GD: What we found ... was that, in each of the actions we took in 2007, we believed we were acting in compliance with the intent and spirit of the Clery Act. The two serious ones they found ... were, we have to send a notice to the entire campus community about the prior calendar year's crime statistics. In that email we sent out, we embedded a hyperlink that said, "The complete Clery Act is available by clicking here." They said we were not in compliance because we didn't include the whole URL ... We didn't read that to mean the full, long listing of it.
The second one had to do with the number of reported sexual assaults. the categories they have are "reported forcible sexual assaults" and "reported nonforcible sexual assaults." Those are your two choices. On the information we reported we had on our website, we reported 20 other [sexual assaults] that had been reported anonymously, that we were unable to determine whether they were forcible or nonforcible.
So, any member of the university community has a variety of ways that they can inform the university about a sexual assault. One obvious way that a report comes in anonymously is on the UVM police site, where there is a "report a crime" link. And you can go on there, report a crime, and never be identified. At that point, we're dependent upon how much information we get from the person reporting it ... So, we listed those 20 [sexual assaults] on our website. There was no attempt to hide them, but we couldn't say whether it was forcible or nonforcible.
The less serious finding had to do with a statement in our sexual-assault policy that [the DOE] said needed to contain a statement that, "The accused has the right to bring people to the [university's internal disciplinary] hearing." We immediately made a change to that.
The second [finding] had to do with ... if there's a threat to the campus community, we have to notify the campus that there's an ongoing risk and threat, and we have a policy and protocol that we use to go about doing that, where we send our a campus broadcast message to all the faculty, staff and students. We also have the CAT Alert System. I can have it come to me as a text message to my phone. I can have it go as an email, a voicemail, to my home phone, cellphone, office phone ... But [the Department of Education] said that our statement did not include a statement of how we would do it ... That was actually all completed in the summer of 2009.
SD: Who handles the Clery Act reporting for UVM?
GD: It's UVM Police Services.
SD: Since UVM was randomly selected to be audited — though many other colleges and universities are apparently underreporting their Clery Act numbers as well, specifically on sexual assaults — do you think this DOE report unfairly casts the university in an unfavorable light?
GD: Frankly, the story that's out there today I'm not too keen on, because it doesn't put us in the best light. Especially, what's missing is that, nine months before we even received the Department of Education letter, we corrected all these [issues]. In many cases ... it's not like we were arbitrarily trying to hide those [sexual assault] reports ... We take compliance with the Clery Act very seriously and we felt all along that we had been complying with the intent and the spirit.
SD: UVM has a very active Women's Center, and just last month the Davis Center hosted a "Dismantling Rape Culture" conference. What are you hearing from the Women's Center about how common sexual violence is at UVM?
GD: I think they would say that we're no different from any other institution, and no different from any other community. I think it's a plague in many ways across the country.
SD: Was UVM fined for any of these violations?
GD: No, not yet. This administrative action group has the capacity to impose sanctions, which ... can include fines, or the limitation, suspension or termination of the institution. We haven't gotten to the point where we'd make some decision as to what we would do if a sanction were imposed. My hope is that the Department of Justice will say, "They complied. No sanction is needed here."
File illustration by Ryan Ober.