Reported cases of groping spiked at Utah’s colleges last year with accounts from 75 students — a tripling of the total from just three years ago.

The data comes out of the annual crime statistics that universities nationwide are required to compile and release each October. In reviewing the 10 schools in Utah, almost all noted either the same or a higher number of inappropriate or unwanted touching cases in 2018, for a total of 19 more reports than 2017, when 56 were filed.

“That is such a significant increase overall,” said S. Daniel Carter, a security consultant and president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, LLC. “Fondling may sound innocuous, but it’s a wide range of potential misconduct, all of which can be traumatic. It can cause significant harm.”

The University of Utah saw not only the largest share of the 2018 reports but also the biggest jump. Last year, the school had 31 cases of groping, up from 17 the year before. It was followed by Brigham Young University in Provo and Utah State University in Logan, which each had 16 fondling cases.

Prior to this year, no individual school in the state had ever crossed 20.

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

Amanda DeRito, the director of crisis communications at Utah State University, said the school has recently focused on talking to students about the different types of sexual misconduct, including fondling, to raise awareness that all are crimes. The college specifically had a “don’t grope” campaign at its annual Halloween party, she said, to draw attention to the issue.

She believes that campaign may have driven an increase in reporting on fondling and hopes that more survivors feel comfortable talking to police or school officials about it.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize it’s something they should report,” she said. “In the past, there’s been this idea that it’s not as serious.”

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

The vast majority of sexual assaults are unreported — for a variety of reasons, including the fear of retribution by an assailant or uncertainty over how to file a report — so it’s likely those numbers are actually lower than the attacks that occurred.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg, at best 20% of the incidents that are occurring,” Carter added.

Colleges must include reports of assaults that happen on campus, or on public property — like a sidewalk — immediately adjacent to campus, or in an off-campus building owned by the school.

Most attacks against college women occur off campus, according to federal research, but those assaults — in apartments, at social gatherings — are excluded from Clery reports. An estimated 66 percent of college rapes nationwide happen off campus, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

When students report assaults outside Clery boundaries, schools may provide them with services. But even if another student is the accused abuser, those cases are left out.

Utah’s 10 largest universities have more than 190,000 students combined. In 2018, there were 116 reported cases of sexual assault (which includes both rapes and gropings) within the campus areas covered by Clery. That total has steadily increased every year for at least the past decade.

While the number of reported gropings increased, the reports of rape went down. Last year, there were 41 cases; in 2017, there were 56.

Carter said that’s likely due to the increased attention on reporting with the #MeToo movement that peaked about two years ago. That started a broad conversation about sexual misconduct and prompted many victims to share their experiences.

The data for 2018 more closely matches rape reports from 2016, when there were 39 cases, and 2015, when there were 37 at Utah universities.

But the number of gropings has never backtracked in the three decades since the statistics have been tracked. In 2015, there were 27 cases.

At the U., the number of fondling cases nearly doubled from last year. And there were 12 reported rapes. It’s also the only college in the state to report a murder in the annual statistics.

Lauren McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete, was killed outside of her dorm last October by a man she had tried to report to police for extorting and harassing her. Independent investigators later found that campus officers didn’t take her concerns seriously.

McCluskey is also counted in the cases of stalking on the campus, which shot up from 18 to 30 last year — again, the largest increase of any in the state.

Since her death students have criticized the university and its police force for their response. Several have said they no longer trust that the U.’s officers would protect them and wouldn’t report to them if something happened.

(Photo courtesy of the University of Utah) Lauren McCluskey, who was a University of Utah track star, on Aug. 30, 2017 in Salt Lake City.

“It can’t be underestimated how that can chill reporting,” Carter noted.

Overall, the U. had the highest number of sexual assaults reported at 43. Police Chief Dale Brophy said the school has been working to encourage students to report and bring awareness to misconduct. No form of abuse, he added, should be tolerated.

“The more safety is highlighted, the more people know they have the ability to report it,” said the chief, who is retiring from U. this month. That includes to the police department, the Title IX Office, the dean of students and the Center for Student Wellness.

Utah State has also been criticized in recent years for its handling of sexual assault cases and has been working to improve its reporting process.

The school was first prompted to review its handling of assault complaints around 2016 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).

Last 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.

It had 20 sexual assault cases in 2018, the same as last year, with 4 reported rapes across three separate campuses. Ten of the 16 fondling cases happened at its eastern facility in Price. Carter believes the numbers are proof that the school is making real change and encouraging more survivors to file a report.

“Sexual assault doesn’t stand in a vacuum. There are behaviors and cultures to look at,” DeRito said. “And we’ve been looking a lot at prevention and response.”

The school has started requiring all incoming freshmen to complete training on consent and how to report an assault. It also overhauled its Title IX Office staff and spent $100,000 to install 52 new security cameras across campus. And it now has more oversight over fraternities and sororities.

This year, too, USU conducted its second campus climate survey. Those can help supplement the numbers from the Clery report, Carter said, and give 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.

Several schools have already done such surveys, using their own sets of questions. In Utah State’s 2019 responses, for example, 10% of participants said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact since enrolling at the Logan school. That’s up from 7.4% from the university’s 2017 survey. (Nearly a quarter of the student body answered the questions.)

If those numbers are a better sign of the real prevalence of sexual violence, roughly 2,000 students at the school have experienced some form of abuse. That’s much higher than the 20 cases reported in 2018 in the Clery data.

DeRito said USU will use the numbers to develop priorities, including a focus on respecting boundaries, talking about harassment and encouraging even more for students to report their experiences.

Brigham Young University in Provo saw an increase from 10 reported sexual misconduct cases in 2017 to 19 in 2018. Of those, 16 involved groping and 3 were rapes. The school also saw 30 counts of stalking, 5 domestic violence cases and one allegation of dating violence.

Police Lt. Steven Messick said in an email that it’s unclear if those are “a result of an increase in crime or an increase in reporting.” A few years ago, there was a “BYU groper” who grabbed women on campus. But nothing similar is behind the increase this year.

The private school, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also came under fire in 2016 for mishandling complaints and penalizing survivors who reported rape. BYU has since offered amnesty for Honor Code violations to students reporting sexual assaults after victims said they were being punished for breaking the school’s strict conduct rules, including a prohibition on pre-marital sex.

Salt Lake Community College, which does not have on-campus housing, saw the smallest number of reported assaults of the 10 schools, with just one case. Dixie State, Snow College, Utah Valley University, Weber State and Westminster College all saw small dips in their number of reports. Southern Utah University moved from five to six cases.

“Although we have low numbers, one sexual assault is one too many,” said UVU spokesman Scott Trotter, whose school has the largest student population in the state, but dropped from 12 to 7 reports. “These numbers represent our students, and we take all of this very personally and seriously.”