The $165,000 fine against Yale University for underreporting the frequency of sexual assaults might be a catalyst needed to remind colleges of their obligation to protect students from such crimes, according to a victims' advocacy group.
"I think once these cases come to light, it actually draws victims from other cases to speak up," Tracy Cox, spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said. "I think it says something about the culture everywhere.
"This may very well be a tipping point."
More than 90 percent of sexual assaults on U.S. campuses go unreported, according to a 2000 U.S. Department of Justice Study, and students have filed complaints this year against two universities for the way administrators handled students' reporting sexual assaults.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has fined Yale for its underreporting of sexual assaults on campus more than a decade ago.
In a letter last month issued to the New Haven, Conn., university's president, Dr. Richard Levin, the Department of Education cited Yale for failing to report four "forcible sex offenses" that took place in 2001 and 2002. The school also failed to designate parts of Yale-New Haven Hospital as part of its campus and, subsequently, report crime statistics in those areas to the federal government, for which it was fined.
The university was also fined for failing to include several statements that disclosed campus crime statistics, including sex offenses, in its 2004 Annual Security Report issued to enrolled and prospective university students and employees, according to the April 19 letter.
While the letter stated that the university had since corrected its crime reporting, "the correction of violations does not diminish the seriousness of not correctly reporting these incidents at the time they occurred."
The Department of Education characterized Yale's violations as "very serious and numerous."
The Department of Education initiated a review of the Ivy League university's compliance with the Clery Act after a 2004 Yale Alumni Magazine article questioned the university's policies with respect to sexual misconduct, according to the letter.
The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act is a federal statute that requires colleges and universities participating in federal financial aid programs to record and disclose campus crime statistics to students, faculty and staff, as well as the Department of Education.
Failing to abide by the Clery Act might jeopardize an institution's ability to provide federal aid to students.
University spokesman Tom Conroy told ABC News today that the university has requested that the fines be reduced, and is waiting for a final determination from the Department of Education.
"Yale has a structure in place to address these issues that is as strong as any school in the nation," he said. "Whatever guidance that the Department of Education gives to Yale in interpreting the Clery Act, we're going to follow."
Conroy said he was not aware of any student community reactions to the fines, but noted that the crimes in question "were from over a decade ago."
"There is nothing Yale needs to do as a result of its letter with regard to its reporting," he said.
This isn't the first time a university's handling of sexual misconduct has come under fire.
Students at both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Occidental College in Los Angeles, Calif. filed complaints this year with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights against their universities for the way administrators allegedly mishandled students' reporting sexual assaults.
The Department of Education has notified Occidental that it would be pursuing the complaint filed May 9 by enrolled and former students "for failing to properly handle sexual assault," according to the college's website.
The school has not responded to a request for comment.
The Department of Education initiated an investigation of the claims made against University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in March.
UNC Chapel Hill's Title IX Task Force on sexual assault met for the first time May 15 to "specifically address student-on-student sexual misconduct," according to the university's Campus Conversation on Sexual Assault website.
The task force, which is made up of students, faculty and staff, will meet during the summer to address sexual assault in reaction to new U.S. Department of Education guidelines, according to the website.
Cox, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center spokeswoman, said underreporting of sexual assaults on college campuses is still a major issue, despite its recently becoming a subject that victims are more comfortable taking to authorities.
Raw numbers are difficult to come by, but the perceived increases in the number of rapes on U.S. campuses in recent years might be a result of more people reporting rather than more assaults, Cox said
Cox said university leadership should be out front of the charge to change policy, which is difficult when enrollment is often a school's top priority.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword for them," she said. "They want to promote safe campuses, but when you have more people reporting [sexual misconduct], and more people going to the police, it may look like they don't have a safe campus.
But Cox said the increase in sexual assault reporting might result, in part, from improvements in campus policies that allow for victims to come forward more easily.
"In order for change to happen, there has to be a level of transparency at schools and institutions," she said.
Abigail Boyer, a spokeswoman for the Clery Center for Security on Campus, a nonprofit that works to prevent crimes on university campuses, including violence, said, "We always caution people to look past just the data, to look beyond the numbers."
She said that when institutions provide support and resources for students, it is possible for the number of sexual assaults reported on campus to increase.
"It's not a reflection of how safe a campus is," she said of the reporting. "It's a reflection of institutions using best practices and doing things correctly."
Cox said the Yale University fines might serve as a wakeup call for college campuses that they can still be penalized for failing to report sexual assaults more than a decade after the fact.
"It still says that just because they happened 10 years ago doesn't make them any less important," she said. "If anything, it does show that if these crimes are committed on campus and there is a failure to report, they will be addressed.
"No one is going to skate through without any accountability."