Sex assault survey by UK valuable step

Years before the Obama administration turned a spotlight on campus sexual assault, the University of Kentucky was asking itself the right questions.

Surveys in 2004 and 2007 revealed that more than a third of UK's women students had been victims of violence, ranging from stalking to rape. UK responded with a range of safety initiatives and strengthened victim services.

In a recent survey of 24,382 UK students — one of the largest samples ever for this kind of research — more than 1,050 said they were sexually assaulted in the prior year, but fewer than half reported the assaults to authorities.

UK President Eli Capilouto has assigned various campus units — from police to student health services — to make recommendations based on the findings.

It's great that UK is reenforcing its commitment to a safe campus and fostering a culture free of sexual coercion and harassment.

UK also is making the survey and software available to other colleges and universities in Kentucky — an opportunity that other campuses should seize.

The U.S. Department of Education has put every university, college and school district that receives federal funds on notice that they are under a legal obligation to prevent and respond to sexual assault.

Last week, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights announced that UK has been added to a list of 132 higher education institutions under investigation for their handling of sexual assault. UK responded that it is confident it properly handled the case under investigation.

Many educational institutions are taking the obvious first step toward improving their responses to sexual assault by measuring the problem through student surveys.

Much expertise and thought went into designing the UK survey, which will be revised and updated annually for five years. Adopting the UK survey would save others from reinventing the wheel.

Plus, it would yield important data about Kentucky and enable comparisons across the state's campuses.

UK made taking the 15-to-20 minute anonymous survey mandatory to get the largest sample possible, though students could skip any questions they chose.

The results will become more useful once they are analyzed by gender, expected by December.

Because the questions were different from those in earlier surveys, it's impossible to measure change. But one thing has clearly stayed the same: the low reporting rates, even though students in this year's survey expressed high levels of confidence in how UK would handle such reports.

The reasons for not reporting to authorities given by students included a desire to forget, embarrassment and shame and not wanting to go through the formal process. Eighteen percent said they didn't want to get the person who assaulted them in trouble.

Such feelings of guilt, shame and victim-blaming even by victims reveal how much some deeply ingrained societal expectations need to change.

The UK survey already has served an important purpose by raising the awareness of the more than 24,000 students who participated.