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AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Some survivors speak out, others leave.
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

Tallying the cost of campus sex assault

Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

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The first six weeks of the college year have come to be known as the “red zone.”

This is the time when, statistically speaking, the highest number of sexual assaults on campus happen, an estimated 50% of total assaults that will occur that year. Some studies say the red zone lasts the entire semester, others report that assaults spike in the days before classes begin.

While not everyone agrees that we should pay special attention to the red zone, since the threat of violence remains constant throughout a student’s academic career, its very existence points to the knowledge we have about the prevalence of campus rape. We’re aware, thanks to numerous studies, that 1 in 5 women attending college experience sexual violence, including rape. Among undergraduates, just over 23% of women, 21% of transgender, genderqueer, and nonconforming students, and 5.4% of men become victims of some form of sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. The psychological and physical consequences, and the high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), have also been well documented.

But there’s a critical piece of the issue that is still, surprisingly, little understood: What happens to students after a campus rape? What course does their life take? How many students stay in school, drop out, transfer to another campus, suffer secondary setbacks like addictions, severe depression, and eating disorders, or take years to get back on track, possibly never returning to their chosen career path? How many face financial instability for years or decades? Despite the potentially lifelong economic and career-related effects of rape, colleges simply do not have answers to any of these questions.

A handful of researchers are now beginning to chip away at this dark area in our body of knowledge. Liz Lane, a PhD candidate studying education and learning at American International College, in Springfield, Massachusetts, for instance, is currently studying college sexual violence as a factor in withdrawals and transfers.

Lane, who is also an associate professor of English at Goodwin College in Connecticut, is writing her doctoral dissertation on how trauma affects learning. She believes she can make an economic case for preventing and responding fully to campus assaults by showing data to colleges about how sexual violence equals financial losses for the institutions, but also for their communities and the economy more generally. To collect that data, she is running an online survey that respondents can complete without revealing their identity.

Colleges quantify many reasons students drop out, like an inability to keep up academically or the costs of tuition, or the pressure of caring for a child while in school, Lane says. More recently, researchers have begun to emphasize campus culture and engagement. “The reason we know to focus in those areas is because students were asked, over decades, ‘Why are you leaving?’” says Lane. “As far as I know, there isn’t a single template in all of the United States where someone specifically asks, ‘Did you experience violence or sexual violence, is that why you’re leaving?’”

Her survey, posted online and shared on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites, asks exactly that question of college-aged women specifically. She believes she’ll find that sexual violence is a “factor of significance” in why women leave school, “not more than money or academics, but a factor.” If she can gather enough evidence to represent a national sample, she believes she can make a compelling economic case for institutions to be more proactive in stopping sexual assaults.

Other recent studies have shown that sexual violence can affect students’ GPA. And a large study in Brazil has documented the prevalence of PTSD as the result of any violent event, including sexual assaults, in a student population. Logically, students who are dealing with PTSD-like symptoms (including insomnia, an inability to focus, hyper-vigilance, and fatigue) will be more likely to see their grades slide, and may walk away from school, while survivors whose attackers are still on campus may want to leave out of fear.

Lane is expecting pushback on her work. She acknowledges that someone might quit or transfer because of a combination of factors, including personality, stress, a lack of support, or academic hardships, making it tricky to isolate an assault as the driving reason. But the same would be true in any examination of human behavior, she says; it’s not a valid reason to leave sexual violence off an exit questionnaire entirely. (In her online survey, she attempts to deal with complexities by asking, “Is this the primary reason you left the school?”)

“Generally [this research] is in its infancy,” says Lane, “but it’s starting to open up now that more people are willing to talk about it.”

To her mind, the option to remain anonymous is both a limitation of this study and a strength. Rape is the most underreported crime. But the #MeToo movement may have helped to make victims feel more comfortable coming forward. To date, researchers have found a very low rate of false reporting by accusers.

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