Our nine-month investigation into sexual assault on campus has made one thing clear: the federal records on campus sex offenses fail to capture the extent of the problem. Students do not report, hearings are kept secret, and official record-keeping is spotty at best.
It isn’t hard to see why sexual assault is kept quiet on campus. Students, administrators and counselors each have their own reasons to stay silent, from legitimate worries about personal privacy to possible concerns over an institution’s public image.
So why, then, would a school inflate its statistics on sexual assaults?
That’s been the question at the University of California at Davis since October, when officials revealed that the school’s last three years of sexual assault statistics were artificially high. The director of the school’s Campus Violence Prevention Program, Jennifer Beeman, had submitted numbers to the federal government that were unsupported, an internal audit found.
The disclosure had no precedent, and left observers guessing about what it meant or why it happened. Beeman did not respond to requests for comment by the Center for Public Integrity. (Her problems weren’t limited to crime statistics; UC Davis revealed that she also double-billed some travel expenses and fabricated others). Beeman retired in June of this year, following a medical leave that began shortly after she was told she was being investigated.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” the university’s campus police chief, Annette Spicuzza told us, in regard to the inflated statistics on sexual assault. “I don’t know why she would do it.”
Local media outlets have hinted that Beeman’s aim may have been to lock down federal funding.
Would high rape statistics really help a sexual assault prevention program win a grant? Possibly. UC Davis was a repeat recipient of a Justice Department grant through the Office On Violence Against Women, intended in part to increase reporting of sexual assault. There was an expectation, said S. Daniel Carter, public policy director at the watchdog group Security On Campus, Inc., that the school would have a greater reporting rate than other similarly sized schools.
Still, he added, Beeman’s numbers went far beyond what would normally be expected. The school has said that she fabricated a total of 108 sex offense reports over three years.
A spokesperson at the Office On Violence Against Women said that sexual assault statistics are not part of the application process, though they are recorded in grant progress reports.
The spokesperson said that the office is investigating UC Davis for the possible misuse of federal funds in connection with reimbursement Beeman claimed for false expenses.
Over the course of our investigation, we spoke with several dozen victim advocates at campuses across the country. Many said they aimed to facilitate reporting of sexual assault in order to make students feel that they had options in pursuing justice, and to reduce the incidence of rape on campus. Some also said that higher rates of reporting helped them make the point that sexual assault deserved attention and funding.
“Administrators want to know where the problems are,” said Elie Axelroth, head of counseling at California Polytechnic State University, which reported zero forcible sex offenses in 2008. “If we can’t show that sexual assault is a problem, then we’re not going to get the resources. That’s just the practicality of it.”
By all accounts, the lapse at UC Davis was an anomaly. No other school has been accused of over-reporting sexual assault statistics in the same way. And victim advocates see the incident as an unfortunate distraction from the well-documented problem of silence surrounding sexual assault.
“We’re under-resourced,” said Axelroth, adding that her staff does not have time or resources to track even those students who do report sexual assault. “What’s more likely is that we’re really under-reporting what’s happening.”
Claritza Jimenez contributed reporting.