Digest No. 05 - October 2018

Importance of Reporting Instructions for Sexual Assault

Taylor, Z. W. 2018. “Unreadable and Underreported: Can College Students Comprehend How to Report Sexual Assault?” Journal of College Student Development 59 (2), 248–253.


As this study’s author indicates by citing statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s 2015 report, more than 90 percent of all sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the crime. Given these statistics and the national outcry concerning the #MeToo movement, this author takes a novel approach in researching why sexual assault remains critically underreported on college campuses. He uses readability measurements to examine whether college students actually understand the often complicated reporting instructions provided by institutions to help students report crimes related to sexual assault.

In this investigation of the reporting instructions for sexual assault and sexual violence at 100 four-year public and private institutions, he applied four empirically validated coding techniques to determine the readability of the reporting instructions. The 100 institutions were randomly selected from 2,386 institutions in the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). The author then used two search phrases, “report sexual assault” or “report sexual violence,” to access reporting instructions for each of the 100 institutions. Once the instructions were located, he used a series of coding schemes to assess their readability. Readability indicators included the grade level of words used in the reporting instructions, number of words, number of sentences, use of complex words (namely, words containing three or more syllables), and use of compound words.


Based on this methodology, the author concluded that “college students of average reading comprehension ability likely cannot read instructions for reporting a sexual assault provided by 4-year, public and nonprofit private institutions” (p. 251). Specifically, the author reports that the average sexual assault reporting instructions were written at a third-year college reading level, with only 11 percent of all instructions written at levels readable for first-year college students. Readability challenges included both issues with semantics (word choice) and syntactic elements (sentence structure). The author points out that these results are especially problematic for students with reading disabilities and students for whom English is a second language.


Campus leaders are encouraged to do a thorough review of sexual assault policies to make sure that their language is accessible and understandable for all students, including those with reading disabilities or non-native fluency in English. Failure to do so—especially regarding sexual assault policies—may contribute to underreporting of sexual assaults on many campuses.
In his discussion of the results, the author suggests that student affairs professionals work closely with institutional legal counsel, as the latter are more likely to compose institutional reporting guidelines for students. Despite the need for compliance with federal and state policies regarding sexual assault reporting, it remains critical that messaging to students can actually be understood. By bringing the readability of policy language to the forefront of this important issue, this study takes a small but important step toward empowering victims of sexual crime on college campuses.
Vetting policy-related language for students with students might also be an effective strategy for maximizing the reach and utility of institutional messaging. Adding faculty and students to the conversation might signal to the campus that it takes the resolve of the entire campus to address the issues of sexual assault and its underreporting.

About the Author

Zachary W. Taylor is a PhD student in higher education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

American Association of University Professors. 2012. PDF“Campus Sexual Assault: Suggested Policies and Procedures.”

National Council on Disability. 2018. PDF“Not on the Radar: Sexual Assault of College Students with Disabilities.”

National Sexual Violence Resource Center. 2015. PDF“Statistics about Sexual Violence.”