By Diana DiGangi – Capital News Service
A recently released campus safety report showed Virginia Commonwealth University’s number of rape reports nearly doubling, but officials say could be a good sign.
Both the VCU Police Department and the university’s Wellness Center say the increase could be due to students feeling more at ease in coming forward about being the victims of sexual assaults – not an increase in the crimes themselves.
“We believe individuals come forward because they feel comfortable reporting to VCUPD and that awareness and education is a key part in communicating to the community,” said Matthew Lovisa, coordinator of communications and marketing for the university’s Division of Student Affairs.
In its 2017 Annual Security & Fire Safety Report, VCU reported that 15 rapes occurred on campus in 2016. That was a big jump from eight rapes in 2015 and five in 2014.
Crime statistics are complicated because there are several different sets of data. Just days before VCU released its annual campus safety report, which goes to the U.S. Department of Education, the FBI posted crime numbers for the nation’s colleges and universities.
The FBI data showed that VCU had reported nine rapes in 2016. Why didn’t the number match the 15 rapes tallied in VCU’s own report?
Because VCU must pass along all rape reports to the Department of Education, even if the victim has decided not to file a criminal complaint, according to VCU Police. For example, the victim may have chosen to file a Title IX complaint or just seek counseling services.
There was a similar discrepancy in sexual assault statistics in 2015, when the FBI listed three criminally reported rapes at VCU and VCU’s campus safety report listed eight rapes overall.
Officials didn’t seem to think the increase in numbers was indicative of a rape trend as much as a sea change in attitudes toward sex crimes and the victims of such assaults.
“VCU Police has had a paradigm shift in the way the department handles sexual assaults since 2010,” said department spokeswoman Corey Byers.
In 2010, the FBI listed VCU – along with 14 other schools in Virginia – as having reported zero rapes. Only seven colleges and universities in the state reported any rapes that year, with the highest being four at Radford University.
“VCU Police officers want to establish trust and rapport with survivors and want them to know they will be supported when they come forward,” Byers said.
VCU Police are participating in a nationwide campaign called “Start By Believing.” The campaign urges law enforcement officials to trust people when they report sexual assault.
VCU Police Chief John Venuti served on Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Task Force on Combating Campus Sexual Violence in 2014-15. It recommended that law enforcement agencies provide a “You Have Options” program, which offers victims several ways to report a sexual assault, including just giving authorities a verbal record of the crime.
The Wellness Resource Center at VCU has a team of advocates for students who have experienced sexual violence, intimate partner violence and stalking. They meet with students to provide them with guidance, options and support.
In the spirit of “You Have Options,” VCU Police added several “soft interview rooms” for victims of violence or their families. These rooms have soft lighting and furniture and are meant to make those being interviewed as comfortable as possible.
“Our whole goal is just making sure they know that there’s ‘no wrong door,’” said Fatima Smith, the Well’s assistant director of sexual and intimate partner violence, stalking and advocacy services. “In other words, wherever you enter, you’ll be supported, you’ll be believed, you’ll be heard.”