Editor’s note: This story discusses sexual violence. If you need assistance or resources, Utah’s 24-hour sexual violence crisis and information hotline is available at 1-888-421-1100.
The number of students reporting sexual assaults dropped dramatically at Utah’s colleges last year — causing concern among advocates who see it as another likely repercussion of the far-reaching pandemic.
Experts believe the decline is due to fewer students being on campus in-person for classes and events. Julie Valentine, a sexual assault nurse examiner with Wasatch Forensic Nurses, said that created “fewer opportunities for motivated offenders at universities,” which is good.
But she warns that the decrease doesn’t actually mean that the rate of crime improved. Rather, instances of assault likely shifted away from schools and more into private spaces, like apartments and houses outside of college jurisdictions, she said. And that, she fears, could mean students aren’t having the same access to resources.
“That’s the challenge with these numbers,” Valentine said. “They’re not giving us an accurate representation of the reality of the crime. Students are still being assaulted. We’re just not seeing it as much in the reports because they only capture crimes on or near campus.”
In their annual Clery reports, colleges must include 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. They do not include every assault that happens to an enrolled student, so the snapshot is limited.
Overall, there were 74 reported cases of sexual assault across the 10 public and private universities in the state for 2020. That’s nearly half of what was reported in 2019, with 131 cases then.
It’s also the lowest number since 2015, which had 64 reported cases and came before a more concerted effort by colleges to raise awareness and encourage reporting of sexual violence following developments like the #MeToo Movement.
Reported rapes, specifically, on Utah’s colleges campuses decreased from 52 in 2019 to 38 in 2020. And fondling cases dropped from 79 to 36; that’s a 54% decline.
Similar dips were seen across domestic violence, dating violence and stalking statistics, too, with the largest drop in stalking cases. That number decreased from 146 reported in 2019 — a record high — to 67 in 2020 — a record low for Utah colleges within the last decade.
“It has just been a weird, weird year to look at this,” Valentine said. “Most assaults already happen off campus, so it’s concerning with more students being off campus for more time this past year.”
S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, LLC, said in a typical year about two-thirds of assaults with college-age students are not on campus. And, of those that do occur on campus, only between 5% and 12% are believed to be reported. National studies confirm that range.
“These cases are only the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “It’s already underreported, and any time the numbers go down like this — no matter the reason — it’s really cause for some worry. We don’t know what we can’t see.”
Here’s what else stands out in the 2020 annual crime reports for Utah’s colleges.
There was no correlation between cases dropping and what colleges had a higher percentage of online classes.
All of Utah’s college were fully online for a few months after the pandemic started in March 2020. But they all returned with some in-person options for fall of 2020.
Still, the colleges that continued with the highest ratio of online classes with the pandemic did not see the biggest dips in reported assaults.
The University of Utah, for instance, had among the highest percentage of online classes in fall 2020 at 62%. But the number of rapes reported there among the 33,000 students went up by one, from 20 to 21. And the total number of assaults held steady, from 39 in 2019 to 37 in 2020.
Meanwhile, Utah State University, which has a comparable student population at 28,000, had 37% of its classes online. It dropped from a total of 37 in 2019 to nine in 2020. And Snow College in central Utah, with 5,000 students, had zero classes online and saw a decrease from nine to three cases.
One big difference is that USU canceled its annual “Howl” Halloween dance. In the past, the dance has spurred several sexual assault reports. And it’s possible that not hosting it drew the school’s numbers down for 2020.
“A lot of university life has been very different with the pandemic,” said Emilie Wheeler, USU spokeswoman. “And there are things we’re learning from this.”
A Snow College spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The U. doesn’t put on a similar event. But schools, in general, did cancel large events, which might be behind the declining numbers more so than online classes.
“Social gatherings are frequently where sexual assaults occur or where the process originates,” Carter added.
Before the pandemic, the U. had also been on an upward trajectory with reported cases. Carter wonders if the numbers would have been higher, still, if COVID-19 didn’t disrupt that.
Annalisa Purser, the director of administration at the U.’s newly renamed University Safety Department, noted, too, that the school is the only campus in the state with a hospital attached. And any cases of assault reported there go into the school’s numbers.
The traffic at the hospital increased with the pandemic and might explain why the university didn’t see a similar decline as the other schools. The Clery numbers do not specifically delineate if the person reporting was a student or not.
It’s possible that lingering rules from the Trump administration also impacted reporting.
A new policy on reporting campus sexual assaults went into effect in August 2020, started by then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who was part of former President Donald Trump’s administration. It requires that if the school has a disciplinary process in a case that they allow a person accused of sexual assault to cross-examine the victim who reported it.
Westminster College’s Title IX director Mary Royal believes that could have discouraged some individuals from coming forward to report an assault last year.
“It can make it really difficult for someone to want to engage in the process,” she said. “It’s already hard for people to report sexual assault. They think through, ‘Am I going to be believed? Am I going to be questioned?’ And that new policy just made it harder.”
This is the second year in a row that Westminster has reported zero sexual assaults.
Royal said that’s neither good nor bad.
The hope is that no student is assaulted. But the reality is that assaults are happening and higher numbers generally mean more students feel comfortable reporting.
Royal said the small private school in Salt Lake City, which has about 2,000 students, has been working to raise more awareness of what assault is and what avenues students have to report, if they choose to do so.
“We want to make it so it’s not a taboo subject,” she added.
Utah State saw the single biggest decrease in sexual assaults.
With its decrease from 37 reported assaults to nine, USU saw the single biggest decrease in sexual assaults of any college in the state.
Wheeler said it’s possible that is attributable to fewer students being in campus housing with the pandemic.
When restrictions started going into place in March 2020, the school asked students to move back home to finish the semester. Numbers in the dorms returned to normal in the fall, but the school essentially had no students living there in spring or summer.
Wheeler said the school is also working to continue educating students on what sexual assault is and continues to work on reform efforts after it faced federal scrutiny in 2016 in the wake of multiple rape allegations against former USU football player Torrey Green, who was later convicted.
Meanwhile, the U. hit a record for reported rapes.
The U. saw one more rape for 2020 than it did in 2019, jumping from 20 to 21. Though it’s not a large jump, that is a record high for the U. That’s not necessarily bad, Valentine said.
“In some ways, we celebrate seeing the numbers go up,” she noted. “We believe that shows people trusting systems and going in to report. We don’t necessarily believe the numbers going up means more rapes.”
Valentine pointed out, too, that the U. has been working since 2018 to rebuild trust among students with its police department since the on-campus stalking, extortion and murder case of Lauren McCluskey. She believes the Clery report shows the efforts are starting to work.
“Sexual violence is perpetuated when it stays in the dark,” she added.
Purser with the U.’s University Safety Department said they’ve been working to revamp campus policing there and fix the mistakes that were made in McCluskey’s case.
“Obviously, any rape report is one too many,” she said. “However, we know that these cases are happening. When we see these numbers increasing the way we have, we hope that’s reflective of the increased support for victims.”
Still, some colleges saw an increase in interpersonal violence and stalking cases.
While reports of sexual assaults — which include rape and fondling cases — generally went down, two schools saw sizable increases in relationship crimes.
Snow College in central Utah went from having zero reported cases of dating violence in 2019 to two in 2020. And it jumped from zero stalking cases in 2019 to six in 2020.
Utah State increased from two domestic violence cases to five last year. The school said it’s hard to pinpoint why that number went up for their campus.
But domestic violence cases have trended upward across the state and nation during the pandemic as more couples have been home together.
BYU held fairly steady in its numbers as it continues to work to reform its Honor Code Office.
Brigham Young University, like the U., remained similar to previous years with its numbers. It reported one more rape — for a total of four in 2020. And it reported two fewer cases of fondling — for a total of 10.
“The pandemic had many effects on our campus community, but we are not yet able to fully determine how the pandemic may have affected crime on campus,” said spokeswoman Carri Jenkins in an email. “We are always concerned about reports of crime on our campus, and we continue to work to educate our students about domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, sexual assault, consent, risk reduction and resources available on campus.”
The school has been focused on revising how it responds to cases of sexual violence after The Salt Lake Tribune reported, beginning in 2016, that students were being investigated for violating the Honor Code at the private religious school after reporting they had been sexually assaulted.
There are no national trends yet.
There are no national statistics available yet for campus sexual assault data. Those will be compiled later this month, but Carter expects to see numbers similar to Utah’s and a continued impact from COVID-19.