Last year, nine of Utah’s 10 largest colleges saw an increase in the number of students reporting sexual assaults — with the total number of reports statewide crossing 100 for the first time since universities have been required to compile the annual statistics.

Experts say the upward trend is a good indication that more survivors feel comfortable reporting to police and school officials. Still, they note, it doesn’t capture the full picture of just how many students are experiencing sexual violence.

“The barriers that we see to reporting are significant,” said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, LLC. “Because of that, across the board, all of these institutions have understated sexual assault statistics.”

In 2017, 110 sexual assaults were reported on Utah campuses. That’s almost double what was reported two years earlier in 2015, when there were 64 cases. And it’s 38 more than updated numbers from last year.

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

But because the vast majority of assaults and misconduct are unreported — for a variety of reasons, including the fear of retribution by an assailant and uncertainty over how to file a report, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network — it’s nearly impossible to determine how many actually happen each year on university campuses.

Colleges that accept federal funding, including financial aid for students, are annually required under the 1991 Clery Act to compile and release data by Oct. 1 on crimes, from assaults to car theft to arson, that occur on or near campus. For the most part, Carter said, the numbers are accurate for crimes, except those involving sexual violence.

Utah’s 10 largest universities have more than 190,000 students combined, and the numbers for assaults, he added, should be much higher than 110. It’s hard for him to believe, for instance, that Utah State University had nearly four times as many drug and alcohol violations as it did cases of rape and fondling, he said.

The northern Utah school, in the small town of Logan, has been criticized for its handling of sexual assault cases in recent years and has been improving its reporting process.

“We’ve been revising our policy over the last year,” said Amanda DeRito, the school’s sexual misconduct information coordinator. “We’re trying to move forward.”

The school was first prompted to review its handling of assault complaints in the wake of multiple rape allegations against former USU football player Torrey Green. Soon after, it faced a lawsuit from a student who accused Jason Relopez, a fraternity member, of rape — and claimed that five other women had reported to the school that Relopez attacked them, too, before her assault and before administrators did much to act on that knowledge (which the school has denied).

This year, too, USU came under fire for systemic discrimination and harassment within its music program, including a report that a piano faculty instructor raped a student in 2009.

Of the 10 Utah colleges that release annual Clery statistics, Utah State saw the biggest spike in sexual assault reports from 2015 to 2017, jumping from four to 18. Seven of those cases from last year were reported rapes; 11 were fondling cases.

Carter believes the numbers are proof that the school is making real change and encouraging more survivors to file a report.

“I’ve never seen a university with a string of challenges quite like there,” he said. “They’re obviously still in the process of getting all of that right. But they’ve made significant progress. And I’m impressed by the policy changes they’ve made.”

DeRito said the school has started training all incoming freshmen on consent and how to report an assault. It’s also working to fill five new positions in its Title IX, Student Affairs and Sexual Assault and Anti-Violence Information offices to address sex crimes. And it spent $100,000 to install 52 new security cameras across campus so that more incidents of misconduct might be captured on surveillance video.

“I think we’re going to see increased reporting from that,” DeRito said. “That’s what we all hope for.”

Clery data are limited by the law’s reporting boundaries. Schools are required to release data on crimes 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.

An estimated 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 annual reports.

Some schools supplement Clery statistics with campus climate surveys, Carter said, “in order to get a more accurate scope of the data.” The Utah System of Higher Education will require by spring 2020 — later than originally proposed — that the eight public universities that report the annual statistics also do surveys with a common set of questions. The hope is that the surveys will show the real scope of students affected by sexual misconduct on and off campus.

The University of Utah, which saw 32 sexual assault reports in 2017, the highest of any of the schools, plans to release new survey results within the next month; its last one found that fewer than 5 percent of students who said they were sexually assaulted reported to a university office. Utah Valley University in Orem will be conducting a new poll in March.

“I believe the campus climate survey is a better indicator of what’s happening on campus,” said the college’s spokesman Scott Trotter.

UVU is unique among most Utah schools in that it doesn’t have on-campus housing. Trotter said that means its numbers are typically low — but it doesn’t mean its rates are actually less than at other institutions.

The university also saw a jump in its numbers, going from four reported sexual assaults in 2016 to 12 in 2017, with 10 of those being cases of alleged fondling.

“The one thing about numbers is that each number represents a person,” Trotter said. “That’s what concerns us most. We want to protect our people and our students.”

The school has increased its student trainings over the past year to talk more about preventing and reporting assault. Carter said that though that seems like a simple answer, it’s likely why the numbers went up for UVU. And it’s a good thing.

Most schools, he added, likely saw a boost in reporting due in part to the #MeToo movement last year, which has started a broad conversation about sexual misconduct and prompted many survivors to share their experiences.

The only Utah school that did not see an increase from 2016 to 2017 was Westminster College in Salt Lake City. It had four cases of sexual assault last year and five previously.

Provo’s Brigham Young University updated its number from 2016 from two sexual assaults to eight. Spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the school was reviewing its processes — after facing federal scrutiny, as well, for mishandling complaints and penalizing survivors who report — and noticed a “few discrepancies.” Carter said that’s not unusual.

“This was a helpful process for us, and we believe that we have a better understanding of what is required and have improved the scrutiny that we give this report,” Jenkins added in an emailed statement.

This year, the school had 10 reported cases of sexual assault, including three rapes.

Salt Lake Community College, which does not have on-campus housing, saw the smallest number of assaults of the 10 schools with just two reported cases. Southern Utah University had five reports, up from four; Weber State had 12, up from seven; and Snow College had eight, up from three.

Dixie State University in St. George recently changed its reporting process so students can file a complaint directly with dispatch. Previously, they had to dial a specific duty line. Its reports increased from one in 2016 to seven in 2017.

“I think it’s a positive thing when the numbers go up,” said Dixie State Police Chief Blair Barfuss. “That means we’re being effective.”