Someone was sexually assaulted on the University of Wyoming campus on the very first day of classes this year. It wasn’t an isolated incident. Between 2011 and 2013, 27 sexual assaults were reported to campus authorities.
UW Police Chief Mike Samp says the problem is much worse than we know.
“According to FBI statistics, only about 1 in 10 victims ever report it to law enforcement, so although that number may seem high, we could actually have much higher number of victims out there,” Samp says.
In Samp’s nearly two decades policing the Laramie campus, he’s found some common characteristics to these crimes on campus—like alcohol.
“Virtually every sexual assault that we have reported to us at the Police Department, there was alcohol involved by the suspect, the victim, or both,” says Samp. “We [also] don’t have a high incidence of stranger sexual assaults. Virtually all occur by people that are known to the victim.”
A Department of Justice study found that as many as 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted during their time in college—usually by someone in their social circle. A few years back, about 7 percent of UW students surveyed said they’d experienced a sexual assault. Samp says it’s the most common violent crime on campus.
“It does happen here,” says Samp. “They are real incidents. And until we get to the point where our statistics are at zero, we all have more work to do. Our society as a whole needs to take it as a serious issue.”
This summer, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act went into effect nationwide, calling for more education on college campuses, increased reporting requirements—and clearer policies for how sexual misconduct is handled.
Wyoming—with its one university—ranks fourth in the country in sexual assault reports per student. Over the past couple of years, UW has been working to update its response to sexual assault to adhere to the new federal mandate.
Megan Selheim runs the University’s STOP Violence Program. She says before UW overhauled its policy to meet the mandate, victims didn’t know what would happen to them when they reported a sexual assault to administrators.
“It’s now much more consistent and clear,” says Selheim. “So it makes it a lot easier for me to be able to tell a student very plainly—first this will happen. Here’s what you can expect.”
Some victims seek criminal charges against their attackers. Some opt for sanctions through the University’s student conduct process. As Selheim explains to students who visit her office, that process can include an investigation, a conduct hearing and an appeal. Investigators and hearing officers use a ‘preponderance of evidence’ as the burden of proof in these cases.
“They make a determination as to whether or not what has been alleged is more likely than not to have happened,” Selheim says.
That’s a lesser burden than the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ used in criminal courts. In the last academic year, University officials say UW investigated 7 reports of sexual assault involving students. Five were resolved through student conduct hearings. Two remain under investigation. Selheim says 3 students were expelled from UW for violating its sexual misconduct policy during that time.
She says the process is a more prompt and private than a trial.
“Most of the students I work with appreciate having a reporting option that sort of splits the difference between the criminal process and nothing at all,” Selheim says.
But either option can be extremely difficult for trauma victims. Becca Fischer works with sexual violence survivors as director of Albany County SAFE Project.
“Most of the people that I have served who have engaged any of those processes have had a level of frustration,” Fischer says.
In UW’s student conduct process, Fischer says the punishment doesn’t always fit the crime. She says she learned of a student being expelled, but only after he graduated. She learned of another expelled student whose transcript explained his removal from UW as being for ‘personal reasons’—instead of his sexually violent behavior.
“Those kinds of things are troubling to me as an advocate, because that means that while they’re being somewhat held accountable, they’re likely off to the next place to potentially repeat the same thing,” Fischer says.
Fischer says it’s less than ideal when the people handling sexual misconduct investigations and hearings report directly to administrators—who have an interest making sure that the University is perceived a certain way.
“It does become tricky, and I don’t think the University of Wyoming is necessarily immune to some of those political pressures,” Fischer says.
But UW Dean of Students Sean Blackburn says his office is committed to properly handling sexual assault on campus. He says he’s been focused on education and prevention as UW works to meet the new federal rules.
“That’s my priority—is to make sure that from new student orientation to activities throughout the year—that we are providing the education and awareness to all of our students about resources,” Blackburn says.
Those efforts include an online portal, panels during orientation and campus-wide awareness events. He also points students towards the STOP Violence program, the UW Counseling Center and other programs that work to empower victims. Blackburn says he hopes these efforts will lead to more sexual assault reporting.
“As we expand our awareness programs, as we expand notices to campus and we do these other activities, we expect these numbers to slowly climb, as we address the true issue that was always there,” Blackburn says.
UW is also required to share those numbers with the public. Last year’s campus sexual assault statistics will be released next month in the UW Police Department’s annual Clery report.