Dartmouth Survey: More Sexual Assaults Reported

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Hanover — A campus climate survey on sexual misconduct released last month by Dartmouth College indicates that students are reporting higher rates of sexual assault and low confidence in the administration’s handling of the issue.

Last May, when the survey was taken, 34 percent of undergraduate women reported nonconsensual touching or penetration, compared with roughly 28 percent in 2015, the last time Dartmouth conducted this kind of poll.

But administrators this week warned that observers should take with a grain of salt any comparison between the surveys, which differed in methodology, and cautioned against interpreting the results as direct measurements of the prevalence of sexual assault on campus.

“We can’t correlate prevalence in general across the years,” said Allison O’Connell, the college’s coordinator for compliance with Title IX, the federal education law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. “But the bottom line is the levels of harm are too high. We obviously have been doing a lot of work and need to continue doing so to make sure we’re being effective.”

What was striking to O’Connell, she said, was the most recent study’s finding that student confidence in administrators’ response to sexual violence reports was low.

Only about a third of female undergraduates said they expected the college to support the person making a given report, handle the report fairly, take action to address factors that may have led to the incident and conduct a fair investigation. Even fewer women — 28 percent — said they thought Dartmouth would take further action by holding an offender accountable.

The confidence statistics were lower for transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

“This is one of the things that I’m most concerned about and energized to improve,” she said in an interview.

Compared with 2015, some categories of confidence — such as taking a report seriously and protecting students’ safety — have increased by a few percentage points, although some others — including conducting a fair investigation and taking action against the offender — have fallen.

“The women with whom I have spoken do not, generally, have much faith in the institution’s ability to handle matters of sexual assault sufficiently,” said Natalie Vaughan, a sophomore who serves in the campus Sexual Assault Peer Advisor program. “I think that’ll be echoed at a lot of universities and institutions. There’s a fear of bureaucratic red tape and a fear that their stories won’t be believed.”

Dartmouth conducted the climate survey as part of Moving Dartmouth Forward, a 2015 package of student-life reforms launched by college President Phil Hanlon. That year, the college participated in a similar 27-school survey commissioned by the Association of American Universities.

Nearly one in four undergraduate women surveyed across those two dozen schools said they had experienced some form of sexual assault during their college careers, although the study authors warned that this statistic should not be interpreted as the nationwide prevalence of misconduct.

Estimates of the nationwide prevalence of sexual assault vary widely based on methodology and definitions of behavior, with studies finding that roughly a quarter or a fifth of collegiate women report having had some form of nonconsensual sexual encounter.

Dartmouth followed up, in 2017, with its own in-house poll based on the first survey, and posted the results online in January. More surveys likely will follow, O’Connell said, although on what schedule is not clear.

On a positive note, participation increased, from 42 percent in 2015 to 47 percent of all students last year. About 3,150 students answered questions, including just over 2,000 of the school’s undergraduates.

Reported rates of sexual assault among graduate students were slightly lower in the most recent poll, with 49 percent of women saying they had experienced misconduct during their academic careers, compared with 55 percent three years ago.

Dartmouth has launched numerous programs to combat sexual misconduct since the January 2015 announcement of Moving Dartmouth Forward and the climate survey, which took place that spring.

For instance, WISE of the Upper Valley, a nonprofit based in Lebanon that supports survivors of gender-based violence, placed a confidential advocate on Dartmouth’s campus in October 2015.

Students gave WISE and its advocate, Delaney Anderson, high marks in the 2017 survey — the highest, in fact, of a group of 11 college and community resources that included Dartmouth counseling services and the Hanover Police Department.

“I really just appreciate all of the survivors that chose to answer the survey and share their experiences,” Anderson said on Tuesday, noting that the higher response rate to the survey correlated with more and more survivors making use of WISE’s services in the past two years.

Other metrics showed little change in this latest poll. Most students who experienced “unwanted penetration” did not report the incident to college officials or outside services, more often choosing to rely on their friends for support, the survey showed, and women continued to experience sexual assault at rates several times those for men.

Vaughan, citing her experience as a peer adviser, said the school’s small size and close-knit atmosphere likely contributed to students’ decision not to report incidents.

“I’ve talked to women who didn’t want to report because their perpetrator was in the same class, and that class had only 10 students, and they didn’t think they could handle running into him on a regular basis, and in such close quarters, while simultaneously pursuing a sexual assault case,” she said. “On this campus, it seems, everyone is a friend of a friend, and people fear repercussions from friends of their assailant.”

On the other hand, more students told last year’s pollsters that they would step in when they saw problematic behavior or potential sexual misconduct — a change that correlates with the rollout of the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative, which encourages that kind of intervention, O’Connell said.

The school’s Title IX coordinator noted that more changes could be coming with the newly launched Presidential Steering Committee on Sexual Misconduct, a group that will examine the progress and pitfalls of the four years since Hanlon took office and work to update the college’s policies on sexual assault.

“A lot of the work we are doing is still happening or needs to happen,” O’Connell said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.