An Epidemic of Rape, Or Safer Schools? What the Latest Data Say

Are things really getting so much worse at U.S. educational institutions?


News reports that provide disproportionate coverage of school violence frequently make it seem like schools are becoming less safe. Similarly, a national debate over university sexual assault response policies has led some advocates and activists to insist that an "epidemic of rape" has descended upon college campuses.

Are things really getting so much worse at U.S. educational institutions? A new report from the federal government finds that schools are generally much safer than they were 10 years ago, with a few possible exceptions.

According to the Indicators of School Crime and Safety recently released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, overall crime in K-12 schools fell over the last 10 years, although there was a bump in non-fatal criminal activity—such as theft and assault—in 2012. Gang and drug–related violence continued to fall, however.

Most fatal crimes against students occur outside school, according to the report.

"Over the long term, schools are getting safer," said Thomas Snyder, the report's project officer, according to The Huffington Post. "That doesn't mean there's not a lot of room for improvement."

Crime also fell at universities, with one notable exception: sexual assault. The number of reported sex crimes actually increased by 50 percent between 2001 and 2011. (There were 2,200 reported rapes in 2001 and 3,300 in 2011.)

Does this mean that the "epidemic of rape" is real? Not necessarily. For one thing, in recent years the federal government has become more serious about requiring universities to accurately report rape rates. The spike in reported assaults might only show that colleges did a very bad job of reporting until recent years. Penn State provides a useful example, according to pennlive.com:

For instance, Penn State, which is one of more than 50 colleges under federal investigation for Clery Act compliance, reported four on-campus forcible sex offenses in 2011, and then reported 56 in 2012. It's unclear whether the 2010 figure didn't accurately represent what was reported, or whether more individuals came forward in 2012 to report sexual violence to campus police.

Another possibility: The increased media scrutiny of sexual assault rates on campus has emboldened victims to come forward in greater numbers. Caroline Kitchens, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, told me that anti-rape activists should take the news as evidence that their advocacy campaign is working.

"The increase in reported sex offenses on college campuses should be a cause for celebration to activists who have launched a national movement encouraging victims to come forward and insisting on accurate reporting of crime data," she wrote.

Kitchens pointed out that the overall number of campus sexual assaults is still quite low.

"When you consider college enrollment rates, the data actually shows that reports of sex offenses on college campuses are exceedingly rare (2.2 reported victimizations per 10,000 students)," she wrote.

Nevertheless, others focused on this issue—including President Obama—have insisted that as many as 1 in 5 students are raped at some point during college.

Claims like that one are sensationalist, said Kitchens.

"Sexual assault on campus is a serious problem that is best dealt with through honest and serious research—not sensationalist claims and moral panic," she wrote.