What do rising sexual assault rates mean for USC?

Bad news: Sexual assault is on the rise nationwide — but the outlook on campus doesn’t look much better. Despite increased efforts on campus, changes to the Student Code of Conduct and Title IX office and the creation of a Sexual Assault Task Force, the numbers continue to rise. Forty-one sexual offenses were reported to DPS in 2015, including 13 rape cases, which increased from 31 total and 18 rape cases in 2014. As of November 2016, USC Annenberg Media reported 34 sexual assaults last year using data from DPS and the LAPD. Since that date, 18 rapes were reported to LAPD in the university area, though it is unclear if any of them involved USC students. LAPD data on Southwest Los Angeles, which includes but is not limited to the USC area, also shows a 15 percent increase in reported rapes between 2015 and 2016. Though DPS likely won’t release their official crime statistics for several months — the full 2015 report was only released this past September — these early markers point to yet another year of increased sexual assault on campus and in the surrounding community.

According to the latest Campus Climate Survey, which collected data from 20 percent of the school population in the spring of 2015, 14.5 percent of undergraduate female students had experienced “nonconsensual penetration” in their college experience. Compared to 27 other top universities that participated in the same survey, USC was well above the average in the number of sexual assaults, tying the University of Michigan for the top spot. The school was also featured in The Hunting Ground, a 2015 documentary on the issue.

These trends only track reported sexual assaults, and are most likely rising, at least in part because of a culture where victims feel safer to report. High-profile cases at Stanford, Columbia and Baylor, combined with investigative reports like Jon Krakauer’s book Missoula and the now-disproved Rolling Stone cover story “A Rape On Campus,” have brought an unprecedented amount of attention to the issue and put pressure on universities to take action. In this sense, the rising numbers could be interpreted as a positive sign, more indicative of victims’ ability to safely come forward than a spike in the crime itself. In a strange twist of fate, the universities’ steps to deter sexual assault might have actually caused the numbers to rise by turning crimes that were once shameful secrets or “boys being boys” (though of course people of all genders can be victimized) into actionable offenses that victims feel justified to report.

But obviously, no one can take a rising number of sexual assaults as a pat on the back. Even one rape in the campus community is too many. Additionally, the most recent surveys show that only about 35 percent of rapes are reported to police. That means that for every rape that we see in these annual reports, there are potentially two more that are uncounted. And yes, the deeply personal, he-said-she-said nature of rape prosecution can result in some false reports that can skew data. In reality, though, few rape allegations are found to be false. All of these floating statistics and percentages add up to one conclusion: We have a problem, as a nation and a university.

The administration has taken admirable steps toward addressing the issue, and it seems to be honestly invested in the well-being of USC students when it comes to sexual assault. It should be recognized for the efforts made so far. But that doesn’t mean we can let the administration or anyone in the campus community off the hook when it comes to sexual assault.

Existing education programs such as the “Think About It” online training, open discussion of the issue at Freshman Orientation and USG’s weeklong awareness event “It Ends Here” are all good starts and indicative of a campus that is willing to have an open dialogue about the issue. But in the face of these rising statistics, something else must be done. Other universities have taken extreme measures like requiring registered bartenders at parties and only allowing co-ed fraternities, and hopefully USC can change this troubling trend before those actions are necessary. Besides, administrative action can only go so far in battling an issue that begins and ends with students.

As a new semester begins, the campus community must make a concerted effort to end sexual assault wherever possible. That means intervening as a bystander, removing possible victims from dangerous situations and providing unwavering support for survivors. The reversal of this steady rise begins with accepting that we have a problem that will not go away by itself and that every student, faculty member and administrator has a personal responsibility to end it. Let’s make 2017 the year that finally decreases sexual assault incidents, and not another data point in a disturbing trend.