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Study: More efforts are needed to increase reporting of sexual assault at historically black colleges and universities

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC—A study conducted by RTI International found that more efforts-such as peer education and enhanced confidentiality procedures-are needed at historically black colleges and universities to increase formal reporting of sexual assault.

The aim of the study, “Disclosure of sexual assault experiences among undergraduate women at HBCUs,” which was published in the Journal of American College Health, was to understand the sexual assault experiences of undergraduate women attending historically black colleges and universities, including whether survivors disclose their experience to formal and informal sources, reasons for nondisclosure, and satisfaction with disclosure experiences.

Studies focusing on traditionally white colleges and universities have found that very few sexual assault survivors report the incident to law enforcement agencies, but no previous studies have explored this issue on historically black college and university campuses.  Students’ background characteristics and aspects of campus culture that are unique to historically black colleges and universities may play a role in sexual assault reporting. Culturally specific barriers to reporting among black women include:

  • Stereotypical beliefs regarding African-American women, such as the “Strong Black Woman” persona, which emphasizes self sufficiency and resilience
  • Distrust and avoidance of legal, medical, and social service systems, due to prior negative interactions
  • A cultural mandate to protect African-American male offenders

The study was conducted at four historically black colleges and universities and included 3,951 undergraduate women who participated in a web-based survey. The study found that the majority of sexual assault survivors at historically black colleges and universities talk about their experience to someone close to them, but disclosure to formal supports—such as law enforcement, healthcare professionals, and crisis counselors—is extremely rare. This means that, as with college students generally, official victimization data on sexual assault among historically black colleges and university students are imprecise.

“The fact that most survivors told someone close to them about their experience shows that there’s an opportunity to increase formal reporting rates by better educating students about what to do when a friend who was sexually assaulted confides in them,” said Christine Lindquist, Ph.D., senior research sociologist at RTI and study co-author. “Awareness-raising activities focused on assisting peers could have a major impact on reporting, and ultimately, holding perpetrators accountable.” 

The study is the first of its kind to investigate the disclosure experiences of black undergraduate women at historically black colleges and universities, and to identify student-driven strategies for encouraging reporting to police. 

Strategies identified by students to increase reporting include more education and awareness about sexual assault, more survivor services and alternative means of reporting, and better strategies for protecting the confidentiality of survivors.