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AP’s Reporting on Student Sexual Assaults the Result of a Yearlong Commitment

By Mark Walsh — May 05, 2017 3 min read

Two journalists with the Associated Press were talking last year about the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses. Maud Beelman, an editor in the wire service’s Dallas bureau, and Emily Schmall, a reporter there, wondered how early such behavior started in the lives of the perpetrators of such assaults.

“It didn’t seem logical that people would go into college and all of a sudden become rapists,” Schmall said in an interview.

The conversation led to an AP reporting project of more than a year examining the issue of student-on-student sexual assaults in K-12 education.

“Across the U.S., thousands of students have been sexually assaulted, by other students, in high schools, junior highs, and even elementary schools—a hidden horror educators have long been warned not to ignore,” says the main story in the first week’s package of reports, which moved for publication in newspapers and on news websites beginning May 1. Three more parts of the series will be published on each of the next three Mondays, including on Edweek.org.

“Relying on state education records, supplemented by federal crime data, a yearlong investigation by The Associated Press uncovered roughly 17,000 official reports of sex assaults by students over a four-year period, from fall 2011 to spring 2015,” the AP story continues. “Though that figure represents the most complete tally yet of sexual assaults among the nation’s 50 million K-12 students, it does not fully capture the problem because such attacks are greatly under-reported, some states don’t track them, and those that do vary widely in how they classify and catalog sexual violence. A number of academic estimates range sharply higher.”

The AP explained in another article in the first package that it sent queries to public education departments in every state and the District of Columbia for statistics on sexual assaults by students before deciding to compare states across a four-year period with the most consistent reporting—academic years 2011-12 through 2014-15.

“AP counted only those cases that met the federal government’s definition of sexual assault—'any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient'—including forced sexual intercourse or sodomy, fondling and attempted rape,” the story said.

Schmall says she was allowed to devote herself almost entirely to the project over the last year, a not-insignificant investment for a news service with constant deadlines and demands. Among those joining her on the project are Reese Dunklin, a fellow reporter in the Dallas bureau; Robin McDowell, in the Minneapolis bureau; Justin Pritchard, in Los Angeles; along with Beelman, the Dallas-based investigations editor, and other AP staff members.

The most surprising thing to her, Schmall said, was that not every state asks its school districts to collect and report data on student sexual assaults. Also, she was shocked to learn that in some places “school officials were actively working to conceal the details of these assaults from the public,” she said.

The main story in the first package focuses on a Maine student named Chaz, who says he was raped in his junior high school in the culmination of a year of bullying and torment from other students. Chaz’s school district was defending a lawsuit over the allegations and told the AP that it doubted that any sexual assault occurred. The AP report says Chaz has provided the same account consistently, and it questions the thoroughness of the district’s investigation. The two sides settled the suit in 2016 and Chaz got $50,000, the story reported. [This paragraph was updated May 5 2:50 p.m. to clarify that Chaz’s lawsuit against the school was settled.]

The remaining parts of the AP series will examine the prevalence of student-on-student sexual assaults in boys’ sports, the characteristics of perpetrators, and the legal landscape for victims.

Schmall pointed to a sidebar article in the first week’s package about what parents can do in cases of student sex assault and a forthcoming article about possible solutions to the problem as among the pieces that go beyond identification of the issue.

“We felt that it was our responsibility that if we were going to provide all this distressing information, that we offer some solutions, too,” she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.

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