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Student on student sexual assault is more common than we thought

May 1, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
Sexual abuse of students by other students happens more frequently in schools than reported, according to a new investigative report. Associated Press reporters tallied during a four-year period at least 17,000 cases around the country, including many that were treated as bullying or hazing instead. Jeffrey Brown learns more from Emily Schmall of the Associated Press.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But first: A new investigative report finds a disturbing pattern. Sexual abuse of students by other students happens more frequently in schools than reported, and the consequences for the offenders vary considerably.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: A hidden horror educators have long been warned not to ignore — that’s the description of sexual abuse in schools by the Associated Press, which published its story today.

AP Reporters found that students were seven times more likely than adults to sexually assault another student. During a four-year period, the AP tallied at least 17,000 cases around the country. These included many cases that were treated as bullying or hazing instead.

Emily Schmall is a member of the AP team. She joins me now from Dallas.

Emily, thanks for joining us.

One key point you’re making is that this happens more often than we know, right? Is it possible to say how pervasive it is?

EMILY SCHMALL, Associated Press: Yes, it’s absolutely true. It happens far more often, I think, than people realize.

To say exactly how pervasive it is, it’s difficult though, because, just like rape and sexual assault perpetrated in other places, rape and sexual assault in schools is definitely under-reported.

So, while we have been able to tally about 17,000 incidents over the four years, experts have told us it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, let’s establish what we are talking about. Really, we’re going beyond bullying, beyond hazing. Tell us what you are looking at exactly.

EMILY SCHMALL: Yes.

So, we were very, very deliberate in what we counted. And we are looking at sexual assault as defined by the Justice Department, which means forced intercourse or sodomy, forced oral sex, the most severe forms of sexual assault.

We deliberately didn’t include categories like sexual harassment or bullying, even though, as you noted, sometimes, sex assaults are reported as these things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so if you look at the rules governing schools, I gather that it really varies from state to state in terms of how much this is tracked and what kind of actions are taken.

EMILY SCHMALL: Yes, and even sometimes within school districts.

There’s no federal requirement that says schools have to track student-on-student sex assault, even though for a long time schools have been tracking things like free and reduced lunch, guns, drugs on school property. This is just something that they are not obligated to track.

So, various states do collect some sort of information, but it’s inconsistent state to state. And a lot of times, school districts sort of have the discretion over how they report these things. Therefore, in a case — there were plenty of cases we found where they have led to a criminal charge, but the act it itself was categorized and reported to the state as bullying or as sexual harassment or as a lesser form of sex offense.

JEFFREY BROWN: You referred to this a little bit earlier, Emily. Just in terms of why these cases float so much under the radar, why we know so little, spell that out a little bit.

EMILY SCHMALL: Yes, so the experts we spoke to said there’s just a real reluctance on the part of not only school administrators, but parents as well, to acknowledge this for what it is.

They have a hard time recognizing that kids at such a young age can be perpetrators or be victimized in this way. So, that’s part of it.

The other part is that a lot of schools have said that they aren’t really aware of what they are supposed to do when an allegation of sexual assault between students surfaces. And then, lastly, some experts have actually said that schools are just looking after their public image more than they are the victims.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, in the wider public, it’s just something hard for all of us to want to even discuss, I assume.

EMILY SCHMALL: I think so.

I mean, I think there’s still really a stigma about sexual violence, not only in the context of K-12 schools, but in our country at large. So it’s even more intense at the younger school level.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what can or should be done? What — for parents, for educators? What are the experts telling you?

EMILY SCHMALL: Well, the experts are saying that, you know, there is a real reluctance among, not only school administrators, but parents as well, to acknowledge, even, that this is happening and that kids of such a young age are perpetrating these kinds of offenses.

So the experts say that it needs to be recognized for what it is. There are a lot of people working in the space of how we solve this, how we empower other kids to report it. It is actually something that we’re going to be taking on later on in the series. Our stories are running every Monday in May.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Emily Schmall of the AP, thank you very much.

EMILY SCHMALL: Thank you.

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