Why so Many College Sexual Assaults Go Unreported

By KBJR News 1

November 6, 2012 Updated Nov 6, 2012 at 1:52 PM CST

DULUTH, MN (Northland's NewsCenter) - College is the place for education, socializing and experimenting, and for many it's their first time living away from parents.

Among college students, studies show that freshman women are the most vulnerable when it comes to sexual assaults.

We explored the college culture surrounding the most common sexual assault scenarios and why perpetrators often get away with it.

Sexual assaults among UMD students are rare on paper. From 2009 through 2011, the UMD Police Chief says six were reported.

Halloween night, we asked freshman students heading to parties, how many assaults they believe happen each year, guesses ranged from 20 to 110.

If you ask a senior class, "how many of you know somebody who's been sexually assaulted, every hand in the room goes up," said Em Westerlund.

Westerlund who works with victims, says statistics show up to 99 percent of sexual assaults go unreported. Convictions are rare.

"I've had one conviction working with victims, and I've worked with probably 50 to 70 different folks."

Evidence of how difficult it is to prove sexual assault, or how hard it is for a victim to take rape case through the court process.

Westerlund believes part of the reason assaults are under reported is the media.

"They normalize not remembering what happened the night before." said Westerlund.

It's not what's happening necessarily on campus, its what's happening off campus.

"They would not let her leave or they all went in the bathroom and locked the door and nobody could get in," said Westerlund, describing stories she's heard.

"Girls are pushed to drink hard liquor," said UMD freshman Rachel Kindt.

Westerlund says studies show young adults engage in behaviors they don't feel are sexual assault, but are, and repeat them several times. The police chief knows those behaviors well.

"You do see the house party scenario quite a bit," said Scott Drewlo, UMD Police Director.

He says often a guy takes a drunken girl, often someone new to campus, into a locked bedroom or bathroom, where there are no witnesses.

"It's almost has the flavor of it's being passed on somehow, this is how you do it," said Drewlo.

"I'm sure the people that do the actual assaulting probably aren't like regular assaulters, It's like oh hey here's this drunk girl," said UMD freshman Solveig Bloomquist.

"They chose people who they knew were naïve, looking up to older upper classmen," said Westerlund. "A lot of women who find themselves in these situations then blame themselves."

"I know couple of people that say if you're dressing trashy and you get raped it's still partially your fault," said Michael Chidester, adding he doesn't believe that himself.

"Stranger sexual assaults occurs, but so often it's somebody you know and it's happening in your house," said Westerlund.

Knowing the perpetrator can keep victims from reporting, and with alcohol a usual factor, consent can be blurred

"Is he drunk too?" said Kindt. Yeah that's a good question," said Bloomquist.

"Really the most common and readily available date-rape drug is alcohol," said Drewlo.

Underage drinkers often fear that reporting will mean they get in trouble.

"They're not that interested in writing you a consumption ticket if you've been a victim of a sexual assault," said Drewlo.

It's not only one gender taking advantage of drunken co-eds.

"He was too drunk to say no and some girl pointed him into her room, He felt violated the next day," said Chidester about a story his friend told him.

"The courts now in Minnesota recognize that's not always the case that being intoxicated at that level you're probably not able to form willful consent," said Drewlo.

"Not saying no doesn't mean yes," said Westerlund.

Willful consent can be hard to prove in court.

"Especially if there is a delay or evidence isn't collected," said Westerlund.

"It's very important that if someone's a victim of a sexual assault to get in right away and give them a chance to collect evidence," said Drewlo.

A process Westerlund says can be rough for victims, telling and retelling their stories and undergoing an invasive physical exam.
And it can be a lengthy process to get a conviction.

"Sometimes it's two years later, and it's finally making it's way to court and the victim says I'm in a different place in my life," said Westerlund.

There's also social factors.

"Embarrassment," said Kindt. "Seriously, If i was assaulted, I would not want my friends to know about it. I wouldn't want my parents to know about it."

It's an approach that allows the experience to become just another part of college life.

"It's an awful rite of passage that shouldn't be," said Westerlund.

The students we talked to also said they don't know what steps to take or where to turn if they're assaulted.

Advocates are working to educate students on what to do and how to prevent sexual assault, especially those new to campuses.

The SANE progam, or Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, has also made reporting and collecting biological evidence free and more efficient and supportive for victims, regardless of whether they decide to press charges.

Posted to Web by Jena Pike
jpike@northlandsnewscenter.com