Schools are sweeping sexual assault by students under the rug

AP

The conversation around sexual assault in schools has largely focused on college campuses, but an investigation by the Associated Press suggests it's time we started paying attention to younger students.

The AP sifted through state K-12 education records and government crime statistics spanning fall 2011 to spring 2015, and found a total of 17,000 reports of sexual assault by students — a figure the AP suspects only hints at a much larger problem, because sexual assault is underreported and inconsistently tracked. Most often, sexual misconduct took the form of unwanted fondling, but notably, the AP found that one in five students victimized in the reported incidents had been "raped, sodomized or penetrated with an object" by a peer.

The AP noted that many of the schools diminished sexual misconduct, even sex crimes — including rape and forced oral sex — in their records, labeling the incidents bullying or hazing instead. Sexual assault tended to happen when adults weren't watching and without witnesses, and spiked between the ages of 10 and 14. 

In its investigation, the 'AP' found that sex abuse by other students spiked during middle school years.  Mike Groll/AP

While the Clery Act obligates publicly funded colleges and universities to make data on campus crime public, elementary and secondary schools aren't held to similar standards. According to Break the Cycle, a nonprofit dedicated to combatting dating abuse by young people, schools typically lack clear reporting systems or awareness of Title IX policy, which means that students who do come forward about abuse are often left to exist in the same small classes as their abusers. 

"Schools are required to keep students safe," Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University with a focus on sexual misconduct in schools, told the AP. "It is part of their mission. It is part of their legal responsibility. It isn't happening. Why don't we know more about it, and why isn't it being stopped?"