Thirty-two campus sexual assaults were reported to the University of Utah in 2017. But that number is likely “just the tip of the iceberg” for the U. or any school compiling statistics as required by federal law, one expert says.

The U. released its account Tuesday, a week before the Oct. 1 deadline for schools that accept federal funding — including financial aid for students — to report crime statistics from car theft to hate crimes. Limitations on the data and other factors, though, mean the reports don’t give the full picture of the prevalence of sexual misconduct, said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, LLC.

“It’s typically significantly underreported,” he said, as the vast majority of survivors do not file a case with police or campus officials.

Still, the U.’s sexual assault numbers are up from 2016. Then, there were 23 sexual assaults tallied by the school; eight of those were reported rapes. In 2017, the university investigated 15 cases involving allegations of rape.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Police Chief Dale Brophy doesn’t believe the school is seeing an uptick in sexual violence; he thinks more survivors are reporting.

“More reporting is a good thing,” he said.

Half of the rape cases, he added, were reported to offices around the university, including the Center for Student Wellness and the Office of Equal Opportunity. The school launched a campaign last year — SafeU — that includes a central website detailing how and where students can report cases of misconduct and assault.

It was meant to clear up the university’s process, which a federal investigation had previously criticized as disorganized. The review of the U.'s handling of sexual-assault reports followed a 2016 complaint by a student who said the school mishandled a rape report that year.

In a first for the U., the 2017 crime report said the school’s police department ruled some of the reports of rape unfounded. Last year, Brophy said, officers determined that four of the cases they investigated didn’t happen.

Carter said that seems like an unusually high number.

Under the Clery Act, which took effect in 1991, universities and colleges that receive federal funding are required to publicly release data on crimes, including sexual assaults, that occur on campus, on public property next to campus or at other affiliated sites, including fraternity and sorority houses. The reports do not include assaults students experience elsewhere, such as off-campus housing.

Nine of the U.’s cases of reported rape occurred at the residence halls, as did two cases of fondling. But 66 percent of college rapes nationwide happen off campus, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, and — even if reported to school officials — those wouldn’t be included in the Clery data.

To fill gaps in the information, some schools in Utah and nationwide are conducting campus climate surveys. The U. will release the results of a new survey within the next month to supplement its crime reporting.

“Clearly, one assault is too many. We don’t want to see this happen. But we know that it is,” said university spokeswoman Annalisa Purser.

Purser said the school isn’t surprised to see its sexual assault numbers rise this year. There’s been national attention on the issue with the #MeToo movement, she added, which has started a broad conversation about sexual misconduct and prompted many survivors to share their experiences.

Carter, with Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, agreed the movement is likely affecting the reporting rates at colleges. But, he said, the statistics are still “likely understated.”