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Almost 300 sex assaults reported on MN campuses in 2015

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The University of Minnesota received the highest number of sexual assault reports in 2015, according to new state data.
Sam Harper for MPR News File

Last year, state lawmakers began requiring all colleges and universities in the state to begin collecting and disclosing reports of rape or other sexual attacks. 

There were nearly 300 incidents of sexual assault reported to Minnesota college campuses last year, and just about one-sixth were reported to law enforcement.

That's according to the state's first-ever data report on campus sexual assault released Thursday, which aims to track the incidents in a more detailed fashion than required by federal policy.

Of the 294 incidents reported in 2015, 64 were investigated, 108 were referred for discipline and 55 were reported to law enforcement.

That only a little over half of the incidents reported are investigated could be for a variety of reasons. For example, students often don't want to pursue an investigation, but rather just get help in terms of their classes and recovering from the trauma of the incident. 

There are also reports made by friends of the victim and the victim might not want to go forward.

But state officials warn this is just a start. 

"This being a first year data collection, I didn't have a lot of expectations about what we would see in the data," said Nichole Sorenson a research analyst with the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, which collected the data.

"I'd caution you to draw too many conclusions. I feel like in the coming years this data will become more reliable," she said.

One of the reasons for caution is that lawmakers approved the law halfway through 2015, so some schools might not have all the data from the first part of the year. 

Still, the findings aren't surprising to Tina Marisam, Assistant director with the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Campus's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. Her office takes reports of sexual assaults.

"We know that there's a big problem of under reporting of sexual assault on college campuses so that the numbers of actual sexual assaults that are occurring are likely much higher, but in terms of what has been reporting it's surprising," Marisam said.

The University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus had 47 reported assaults, the highest of any college in the state.

Private schools had the next three highest numbers of sexual assault incidents reports. The College of St. Benedict and St. John's University reported 21, and Carleton College and the University of St. Thomas each reported 20.

Amy McDonough, director of government relations for the Minnesota Private College Council, says the higher numbers at small private colleges might be because of greater awareness. 

"Colleges are putting more emphasis on more training and more conversation on sexual assault on campus," she said.

McDonough says private colleges are spending a lot more time giving students in-person education on what sexual assault is and how to report it. 

"That's going to lead to more reporting," McDonough said. "So I think it's really important that consumers know and parents know and families know that that can be a good thing to see numbers increase, because we know it's happening everywhere and we need to make that students are on a campus where the culture is really open to reporting or getting help when something happens."

The report found about 19 percent of the incidents reported to campus officials were also reported to police. But experts say students don't often seek police investigations in these cases.

Given that this is the first year the state is requiring campuses to log sexual assault reports, there could be some issues of how institutions interpret what needs to be reported and what doesn't.

Marisam says the data provides a good start, with much more depth than the current federal reporting requirements.

"I think that the reporting is a positive step. I think it is a move toward more transparency around college sexual assault reporting," she said. "And hopefully it will generate attention about the problem of sexual assault on college campuses and help us create a conversation about possible solutions."

The new state laws also make schools require students attend informational sessions on sexual assault as part of student orientation. Officials hope that education might help to bring down these numbers in coming years — even if greater awareness causes them to grow in the short term.

Editor's note (Dec. 2, 2016): An earlier version of this story did not make clear that The College of St. Benedict and St. John's University filed a report jointly. The story has been updated.