The number of sexual assaults and harassment cases reported at the University of Iowa have increased by some measures in the last five years, but the overwhelming majority of cases are handled in an informal way.
According to annual reports, in 2007 just one undergraduate student out of 20,000 filed a formal complaint with Iowa's Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, the school office designated to handle such complaints. Eight other formal complaints were filed by graduate students or staff.
Meanwhile, three-fourths of all complaints made by staff or students are investigated informally on campus. The director of the university's Women's Resource and Action Center, Monique DiCarlo, says the statistics are stunning and frustrating.
At the same time, Iowa City police say reports of sex-related crimes have risen since 2004.
"Violence against women on college campuses is an epidemic," DiCarlo said. "Research shows college is where they are more likely to experience it than at any other time in their lives."
Other school officials say that many women simply prefer to handle incidents informally.
"Frankly, many of the situations are low-key, and the students prefer it be handled that way," said Marcella David, an associate provost and special assistant to the president for Equal Opportunity and Diversity.
The issue of how Iowa handles sexual assault and harassment claims on campus has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after the state Board of Regents reopened an investigation into the handling of an October 2007 alleged assault of a female athlete by two football players.
In that case, the mother of the alleged victim wrote a letter to University of Iowa President Sally Mason complaining that athletic department officials told her daughter an informal inquiry would be more swift and effective than a formal investigation.
The mother's letter said that athletic officials did not provide her daughter with clear policies. When the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity did get involved, she wrote, her daughter was reduced to tears.
"(EOD officials) were aggressive and forceful in their interviewing tactics and accusatory in their stance," the mother wrote to Mason.
School policy currently requires the EOD office to be notified in the event of any sexual assault or harassment.
However, if victims opt for informal investigations, the names of the parties accused are not necessarily shared. The alleged offenders who are the focus of informal investigations don't have to be notified, and no disciplinary action can be taken against them through the informal investigation process.
Jonathan Kassa, executive director of Security on Campus Inc., a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit responsible for federal reforms of on-campus crime, said it's not apparent yet whether Iowa has appropriate policies for handling sexual assaults and other sex crime investigations.
But he said, the scant number of formal inquiries the U of I conducts alone warrants further inquiry. Even when you consider that sexual assaults are notoriously underreported, "the numbers ... don't reflect reality in society, let alone on college campuses," he said.