A spike in reported sex offenses at Clemson University is being touted as a positive sign that campus education and awareness efforts are succeeding.
The combined number of reported forcible sex offenses and instances of dating violence at Clemson jumped from two in 2012 to 17 in 2014, according to the most recent available figures.
The higher number of reports “doesn’t mean sexual assault has increased at Clemson,” said Shannon Lambert, executive director of the Pickens County Advocacy Center. Her organization provides assistance to Clemson students and other Pickens County residents who are victims of sexual violence.
Instead, Lambert and Clemson officials say the rise in reported sexual offenses is proof that more victims are willing to come forward.
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Jerry Knighton, Clemson’s Title IX coordinator, says university officials “are doing a much better job of educating our student body, faculty and staff. As a result of that, we are getting more reports.”
Clemson University Police Chief Eric Hendricks sees the increase in reports of sex offenses on campus as “good news for us.” He said students have greater confidence that his department and other university officials will respond to these cases appropriately.
Rape and other sex offenses are among the most underreported crimes. According to the latest data from the U.S. Justice Department, two out every three sexual assaults go unreported.
And although statistics show that the rate of rapes and sexual assaults has plunged by 74 percent nationally since 1993, this trend has not taken hold at many colleges and universities. According to results of a survey last year involving 150,000 students, 23 percent of undergraduate women said they have been physically forced — or threatened with force — to take part in sexual contact.
Based on the results from last year’s survey and other studies, it is reasonable to assume that up to 2,000 sexual offenses may be occurring at Clemson annually, said Megan Fallon, who was hired last year as university’s interpersonal violence prevention coordinator.
“It is not like it hasn’t been happening,” said Fallon, adding that she hopes even more students will report these crimes in the future. She also expressed optimism that prevention efforts will eventually lead to a decrease in sex offenses at Clemson.
Federal officials have warned colleges and universities across the U.S. that they could face severe consequences unless they do a better job dealing with campus sex crimes. These offenses fall under Title IX, which prohibits sexual discrimination and harassment in any federally funded education program or activity.
Vice President Joe Biden drove home the point during a speech at Clemson last November.
“The Department of Education has made it crystal clear that schools that fail in their responsibility are in violation of Title IX and risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding because the president and I take this deadly seriously,” Biden said.
Knighton said Clemson has taken a series of steps in recent years, including the creation of a task force in 2012 that includes faculty members who have conducted research on sexual violence and prevention programs.
“It was put together to make sure the administration, staff and faculty was more responsive to sexual violence,” he said.
The sexual violence task force helped craft an updated anti-harassment and nondiscrimination policy that the university’s board of trustees adopted in July 2014.
The policy states that “all sexual contact and behavior” involving members of the university community must be consensual. Rape, fondling, sexual coercion and other forms of sexual misconduct are deemed as unacceptable forms of harassment, according to the policy.
The task force also suggested hiring an interpersonal violence prevention coordinator to oversee education and awareness programs for faculty, staff and students. Dozens of these programs have been held on campus since Fallon filled this post last year.
Fallon said a special emphasis has been placed on reaching out to new students who are at a heightened risk for sex-related crimes when they first arrive at Clemson. As part of this effort, the Pickens County Advocacy Center conducted training last week for mentors who will work with 65 incoming freshman athletes.
Before graduating, Clemson students now must complete a course that teaches them how to intervene as bystanders when they witness sexual offenses and other acts of violence, Fallon said.
Knighton said the education and awareness initiatives have put the university “in a better position to address these issues as they come up.”
The heightened focus that officials at Clemson and other universities have placed on campus sex offenses has led to an unanticipated backlash. Dozens of male students have filed lawsuits after being kicked out of these institutions for alleged misconduct that did not result in criminal charges.
Last month, a freshman sued Clemson in an effort to overturn a one-year suspension that he received for sexual misconduct and other infractions. The student, identified only as John Doe, claims that he had consensual sex with a female student last October who later filed a complaint.
The suit contends that university officials “failed to adhere to Clemson’s own guidelines and regulations, and the guidelines and regulations themselves are inherently discriminatory and insufficient to protect the rights of male students.”
Clemson has yet to respond to the suit and Knighton declined to answer questions about the case.
But Knighton did say that investigators and members of hearing boards that rule on these cases receive special training. He also said students who file complaints and those accused of misconduct can appeal decisions reached by the hearing boards.
The university’s rules “provide opportunities for both sides to present information and witnesses,” Knighton said.
“We need to be equitable,” he said. “We need to be fair.”
While education and training are important, Biden told Clemson students during his speech that cultural changes are needed on campuses to prevent sex crimes from occurring.
“None of it will make any difference,” he said, “until the time comes when you look at the guy who is taking advantage of a woman or a girl and you view him for what he is: a disgusting person engaged in a heinous act with no social redeeming value.”