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Poster to educate students about consent

Much of the public discussion about the impact of campus sexual assault cases in recent years has focused on the toll on victims (and increasingly on the rights of the accused). But college leaders have grown concerned, too, about the financial impact on their institutions, and a new report from United Educators actually quantifies that burden.

Over a five-year period, United Educators -- a member-owned insurance cooperative that insures hundreds of colleges and universities -- received reports of about 1,000 cases at its member institutions in which a student reported being sexually assaulted. The report is based on information gleaned from those incidents.

Fewer than 100 of those cases resulted in monetary losses for the institution, but those that did amounted to $21.8 million over the five-year period between 2011 and 2015. Several incidents costs the institutions more than $1 million, including one $2 million claim.

On average, those 100 or so colleges and universities lost $350,000, between legal action and demand for damages in sexual assault cases, the report found.

“A third of a million dollars is a lot of money for a claim,” said Alex Miller, associate vice president of learning programs in the risk management department at United Educators. “It’s not that common, but when it happens, it’s actually very expensive.”

Because of its role in helping higher education institutions avoid risk and liabilities, United Educators is privy to information about sexual assault reports and investigations that almost no other organization has.

“When we have data like this, we think it’s helpful to get it out,” Miller said. “It’s another data point emphasizing the importance of these issues.”

Laura Dunn, founder and executive director at SurvJustice, an advocacy organization for victims of sexual assault, said the numbers detailed in the United Educators paper may well encourage colleges to “aim higher and do more” regarding sexual assault.

“Moral arguments and legal requirements have not sufficiently incentivized [some] schools … from committing significant atrocities around failing to prevent and address campus sexual violence,” Dunn said. “Money speaks.”

“I think the document they put out accurately captures the very real concerns schools should have about failing to properly prevent and address sexual violence through preparation,” she added.

The report, which comes from United Educators' new branch of services called Canopy Programs, outlines a number of ways institutions can avoid the high costs of litigation over sexual assault cases: provide appropriate training for staff, ensure university employees know their reporting obligations, enforce sanctions consistently, make sure students understand what consent is, and audit institutional security policies, among others.

Canopy Programs -- through its product "Campus Forward: The Harassment Initiative" -- offers comprehensive online training and consulting services to help colleges approach issues of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination.

The recommendations may not be anything new, but Miller said it’s important to drive home the point about how to prevent sexual assault in the first place.

“I think for a lot of institutions it hasn’t always been [straightforward],” he said. “These recommendations, as much as anything, are just meant to emphasize what we feel individuals at all institutions need to be thinking about.”

Colleges and universities are experiencing a great deal of uncertainty right now with the change in administrations, he said. It’s possible President Trump will not have the same “urgency” in addressing sexual assault on campus that the Obama administration had, Miller said, but that should not deter institutions from pursuing prevention efforts and improving campus culture.

“The point is that the issue does not go away just because the regulator has changed,” Miller said. “We do want to make sure the urgency around this issue stays. We don’t want it to dissipate, because these claims are happening and they’re expensive.”

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