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Students walk to class on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in this file photo.

FORCIBLE SEXUAL OFFENSES REPORTED, BY COLLEGE, 2015

Chattanooga State Community College - 2

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga - 6

Cleveland State Community College - 0

University of Tennessee at Knoxville - 2

Source: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

FORCIBLE SEXUAL OFFENSES REPORTED, BY YEAR

includes rape, sodomy, sexual assualt with object, forcible fondling

2015 - 119

2014 - 94

2013 - 53

2012 - 46

Source: Tennessee Burea of Investigation

OVERALL REPORTED CAMPUS CRIME IN TENNESSEE

2015 - 5,945 offenses reported

2014 - 6,394

2013 - 6,765

2012 - 7,612

Source: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

 

College students reported about 27 percent more forcible sexual offenses on Tennessee campuses in 2015 than in 2014, according to new data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Reports of rape, sodomy, sexual assault with an object and forcible fondling went up by 26.6 percent across the state, according to the agency's annual "Crime on Campus" report released this week.

Advocates and law enforcement officers say the increase is an indicator that more people who are victims of assault are coming forward about the incidents and reporting them to authorities.

The higher numbers don't necessarily suggest a higher rate of sexual assault, said Rebecca O'Conner, vice president for public policy at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

"People respond to increased reports as bad news — and of course it is bad news that this is happening — but it also means that more survivors are coming forward and reporting," she said. "So it is a double-edged sword for us. We are seeing numbers that demonstrate what we have known and thought to be true — that this is happening in every corner and every campus — but there has also been this push to make it known that this is something that is OK to talk about. So we're encouraged by that."

During the last four years, reports of forcible sexual offenses on college campuses in Tennessee have risen every year, according to the TBI, and have more than doubled since 2012. Just 46 forcible sexual offenses were reported in 2012, compared to 119 in 2015.

In that same four-year span, total reported campus crime dropped every year, according to the TBI's report. In 2015, reported crime was down 35 percent from 2012 levels.

The rising numbers of reported sexual assaults coincide with a national push by advocates, legislators and educators to raise awareness and set up new protections and methods for reporting. It also comes as some advocates push for a new definition of consent — a shift from the traditional "no means no" mantra to "yes means yes."

The number of reported sexual assaults is still in single digits for most major universities. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga reported six rapes in 2015, compared to none in 2014, while the University of Tennessee at Knoxville reported two in 2015, compared to six in 2014.

Chuck Cantrell, spokesman for UTC, said the university is not alarmed by the increase in reporting.

"[It's] a result of a concerted effort by campuses to create climates of confidence and respect for victims," he said. "All campuses have put more resources in educational initiatives and awareness programs related to sexual misconduct, relationship violence and stalking."

This year, Chattanooga police and university police plan to enter an agreement to cooperate on sexual assault cases, police Chief Fred Fletcher said. The proposed memorandum of understanding would allow UTC police to ask Chattanooga investigators to work on on-campus sexual assault cases.

"We have committed to support them in every way possible, and they have committed to include us," Fletcher said.

If the agreement is finalized, the two departments also will trade information about off-campus crimes that involve students, Fletcher said.

Beyond sexual assault, many other categories of reported crime decreased in 2015, according to the TBI. Overall reported campus crime decreased by about 7 percent. Reported burglaries, robberies, drug violations and reported fraud were all down.

The most commonly reported crime in 2015 was theft, which made up 29 percent of all reported crimes. Across the state, 880 thefts were reported, which is about a 23 percent decrease from 2014, when more than 1,000 thefts were reported.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke on Thursday applauded efforts by both advocates and law enforcement to improve the process of reporting sexual assault and keeping campuses safer.

"Safety in our community shouldn't end at the gates to the university," he said.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury

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