A bill set to come before the Massachusetts Legislature’s Committee on Higher Education this week would require every college and university in the state to conduct a sexual misconduct climate survey every two years.
This survey would give schools a better general idea about the overall perception of sexual assault on campuses. Moreover, a regularly scheduled survey could show what general changes, positive or negative, have occurred regarding sexual misconduct.
The proposed survey is similar to a sexual misconduct survey Boston University conducted earlier this year. That survey, which opened Feb. 1 and ended March 2, was created by the Association of American Universities and used by 32 other schools.
The survey, which followed a BU-designed one that went out in 2015, was designed to help the university understand students’ attitudes toward and experiences surrounding sexual assault and misconduct, AAU Communications Officer Melissa Luke explained when the survey was announced last fall.
“Results of the 2019 survey will help university administrators facilitate conversations on campus about this important topic,” Luke wrote in an email, “and formulate evidence-based policies and practices intended to reduce sexual assault and sexual misconduct on campus.”
Mandating colleges and universities to conduct a sexual misconduct survey is a positive development. However, students should not be required to take such a survey, given the sensitivity of questions that will inevitably be asked.
What’s more, colleges should be skeptical of the results given and take into account some surveyors’ hesitancy to report sexual misconduct. It could be very triggering for someone who has experienced such trauma to fill out a survey about it, even if given anonymity, and this hesitancy to fill out the survey would likely lead to at least slightly skewed results.
Only 23 percent of sexual assaults are reported to police, and less than one percent will lead to a felony conviction, according to RAINN, a national anti-sexual violence organization. About 11 percent of students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force or violence.
Therefore, it’s likely data from any survey in this topic area would undercount instances of sexual assault. And, furthermore, a survey alone cannot truly examine the complexity of navigating situations involving sexual assault. Questions that ask students how they would act as a bystander in a situation involving sexual misconduct may yield unrealistic results.
This proposed biennial survey could, and should, be crafted to provide insight on the effectiveness of services such as the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center at Boston University.
But an expansion of the resources that this center and its equivalents at schools across the Commonwealth provide would be more helpful than a survey at addressing the problems of sexual misconduct and assault.
This proposed survey would gather some evidence and act as a barometer, but barometers aren’t always very accurate. If schools pair the survey results with an initiative to expand resources, they could begin to change the campus climate for the better.
Boston University Student Health Services has crisis intervention counselors on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year at 617-353-SARP (7277).