RICHMOND – More than nine out of 10 Virginians think colleges and universities should be required to report campus sexual assaults to police, according to a statewide poll released Thursday.
The Commonwealth Education Poll, conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University, found that 92 percent of respondents said sexual assaults involving college students should be referred to police, not simply handled by school officials. That number surprised Dr. Robyn McDougle, interim executive director of VCU’s Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute.
“Rarely is there such a strong consensus on any issue in our public discourse about such a charged issue,” said McDougle, an associate professor at the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. “Lawmakers in an election year will pay close attention to this type of overwhelming sentiment.”
Campus rapes and other sexual assaults have been the focus of concern in Virginia and across the country. Two bills before the General Assembly would require campus police to alert the commonwealth’s attorney about sexual assaults within 48 hours: House Bill 1343, sponsored by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn. D-Fairfax; and HB 1785, introduced by Del. Jimmie Massie, R-Richmond.
According to the Commonwealth Education Poll, 61 percent of Virginians believe that actions available to college administrators can significantly decrease the number of sexual assaults.
However, 35 percent of those polled said that sexual assaults of college students would happen regardless of administrative action. “College campuses are known to have many unsupervised activities,” McDougle said in explaining why some may feel that way. “There are lots of risk factors.”
State officials are pushing college administrators to address sexual assaults. In his State of the Commonwealth speech on Wednesday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he wants all of Virginia’s public colleges and universities to develop sexual misconduct policy by July 31.
The Commonwealth Education Poll also asked Virginians how safe they think college and university campuses are in Virginia. Statewide, 32 percent of respondents characterized campuses as “not very safe” or “not at all safe.”
The perception of safety varied significantly by gender: 40 percent of women said campuses were “not very safe” or “not at all safe”; only 22 percent of men felt that way.
McDougle said she believes the disparity was due in part to the fact that the poll was taken at the end of December and beginning of January. That was shortly after extensive media coverage about Hannah Graham, a University of Virginia student who was abducted, sexually assaulted and killed; and about a much-disputed Rolling Stone article that alleged there was a “culture of rape” at U.Va.
“It definitely impacted decisions and responses, but in general, women are always going to feel more like a victim of sexual assault than men, especially in urban areas,” McDougle said. “We have conducted many surveys prior to this one and have seen that women are usually more fearful and fear themselves to be a victim more than men.”
Perceptions of campus safety also varied by region. In South Central Virginia, 42 percent of respondents said campuses were “not very safe” or “not at all safe”; only 19 percent of people in Northern Virginia responded that way.
The Commonwealth Education Poll was based on telephone interviews with 806 adults, age 18 and older, in Virginia. The poll had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.
To view more details on this and previous polls, visit http://cepi.vcu.edu/publications/polls/.
By Michael Melkonian and Noura Bayoumi/Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of the VCU School of Mass Communications. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.