WASHINGTON — More than 40% of U.S. colleges and universities have conducted no investigations of alleged sexual assaults over the last five years, according to an explosive survey of more than 300 schools by a congressional subcommittee.
Some colleges also have turned oversight of cases involving student athletes over to their athletics departments, according to the report, released Wednesday that was commissioned by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Federal law requires colleges to follow up on reports of sexual assault, yet dozens of schools have failed to provide basic training on how to do that, the survey found. Nearly 73% do not have protocols for how campus authorities and local law enforcement should work together when cases arise. And some schools have no designated coordinator to handle such efforts even though federal law requires it.
The report is based on a random sampling of a wide range of types of institutions, including community colleges, for-profit colleges and liberal arts schools, and dozens of the nation's largest public and private universities.
Concerns about how campuses handle sexual assault allegations have been growing, not only on campuses as more women come forward with stories of assaults but also in Washington. Last week, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights added 12 more colleges to a list of 55 it is investigating for possible violation of Title IX in connection with reports of sexual assault.
Colleges are acknowledging the need to improve. Next week, representatives of more than 50 institutions are expected to gather at Dartmouth College, one of the schools being investigated, for a "Summit on Sexual Assault" focused on making college campuses safer.
A California state audit last month concluded that University of California system campuses "must better protect students by doing more to prevent, respond to, and resolve incidents" of sexual assault. In response, UC-Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said the school has already stepped up its attention on the issue. "We know our work is not done," he wrote.
The report released Wednesday "provides data to back up what survivors and advocates have been saying. We have actual hard data that prove we need things to change," said Sofie Karasek, a senior at the University of California-Berkeley and a co-founder of End Rape on Campus.
Now, McCaskill, who commissioned the study as chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Financial & Contracting Oversight, said lawmakers are working on legislation to improve the way schools handle sexual assault cases and expect to introduce a bipartisan bill this summer.
The "most alarming number," McCaskill told USA TODAY, was that 41% of these institutions had conducted no investigations of alleged assaults over the last five years -- even though some of those institutions reported sexual violence incidents to the Department of Education in that same period.
"It's troubling to me that they are reporting more incidents than they actually had investigations," McCaskill said. "That means that they are reporting some incidents that they clearly have not even bothered to investigate."
Momentum around campus sexual assault has been building since last year, when Congress passed a law requiring colleges to provide educational programs on sexual violence. A White House task force this spring outlined measures for how colleges can comply with the new regulations. Among other things, the task force urged colleges to conduct anonymous "climate surveys" and suggested such surveys become mandatory by 2016.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that about one in five women have been the victim of a sexual attack during college. But that oft-cited statistic, along with other research, has been challenged by critics of what columnist George Will last month called "the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. 'sexual assault.' " Will, who was widely criticized for his remarks, said the numbers cited by the White House are "contradictory" and suggested that rape survivors hold a "coveted status" on campus.
Participants in a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., worried that sexual assault is being defined too broadly.
"We want to make sure we're not lumping together everything from stranger-based attacks to crimes against girls and boys in our foster system, to sexual encounters that happen when people are drinking in college," says Sabrina Schaeffer, the group's executive director. "If we try to include everybody who has had a not-perfect sexual experience into this group, are we in fact undermining very serious and very real violence?"
Among the findings in Wednesday's report:
• About 20% of the nation's largest public institutions and 15% of the largest private institutions allow their athletic departments to oversee cases involving student athletes. Schools that participate in Division I athletics were more likely to provide sexual violence training targeting fraternities, sororities and student athletes -- groups of students among whom sexual violence happens with greater frequency. Among Division I schools surveyed, 64% target training at the Greek system and 82% target training for student athletes. Among a national sample of 236 colleges, 22% targeted the Greek system and 37% provided training for student athletes
• Universities don't know the scope of the problem. Only 16% of schools conduct so-called climate surveys aimed at determining the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, although experts say such questionnaires are one of the best tools to get accurate data about the problem.
• Many schools do not make it easy for victims to report attacks anonymously. Only about half of U.S. colleges have a hotline that victims can call to report a sexual assault. And 44% give students the option of reporting attacks online.
• About 20% of universities said they don't provide training to faculty and staff on how to respond to a sexual assault allegation, and more than 30% of schools do not offer such training to students.
"These problems affect nearly every stage of the institutions' response to sexual violence," the report concluded. "Many institutions are failing to comply with the law and best practices in how they handle sexual violence among students."
Contributing: Natalie DiBlasio and Paulina Firozi