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Survey of prominent universities finds college sex assaults common

| Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

More than 20 percent of female undergraduates at an array of prominent universities said this year that they were victims of sexual assault and misconduct, echoing findings elsewhere, according to one of the largest studies ever of college sexual violence.

The survey from the Association of American Universities drew responses from 150,000 students at 27 schools, including most of the Ivy League. Researchers acknowledged the possibility of an overstated victimization rate, as there was evidence that hundreds of thousands of students who ignored the electronic questionnaire were less likely to have suffered an assault.

But the results add to growing indications that sexual assault is disturbingly commonplace at colleges and universities, especially among undergraduates living on their own for the first time. Though colleges are on high alert to the problem — in part because of a White House task force formed last year to combat it — the survey findings underscore the seriousness and breadth of sexual assault's impact, and how difficult it will be to curb it.

The survey provides a wealth of insights about the prevalence of specific types of assault at a cross-section of public and private research universities; among them was the stark finding that 11 percent of female undergraduates said they experienced incidents of penetration that fit the criminal definitions for rape or sodomy, half of them saying it happened by force.

Others said they were victims of unwanted touching or kissing that could be defined as sexual battery.

“The leaders of our universities are deeply concerned about the impact of these issues on their students,” said Hunter Rawlings, the AAU president. “Their participation in this and other climate surveys is an important part of their efforts to combat sexual assault.”

The AAU's findings are roughly consistent with a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation national poll, published in June, that found one in five young women who attended a residential college during a four-year span said they were sexually assaulted.

Other recent studies also have found high victimization rates at universities in Michigan, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey. But some Justice Department crime data show that women in college are less likely to be victims of rape or sexual assault than those who are not students.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said late last week that the number of students who experience sexual assault is “unacceptably high” — and has been for decades. Duncan had not yet been briefed on the AAU results, but he said the nation must confront the widespread prevalence of sexual assault in college.

“It is shockingly bad, but it is the truth,” Duncan said. “It's just like gun violence. I'm shocked every day at the level of gun violence in this country. But it's the truth. We can either hide from that reality, or not.”

Participants in the AAU survey included elite private universities such as Harvard and Yale, as well as public flagships such as the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Virginia.

The others were Dartmouth College (the only non-AAU member); the California Institute of Technology; Brown, Case Western Reserve, Columbia, Cornell, Iowa State, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Texas A&M universities; Washington University in St. Louis; and the universities of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota-Twin Cities, Missouri-Columbia, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Southern California and Wisconsin-Madison.

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