Reports of sexual assault at Minnesota colleges have risen sharply in recent years, lending urgency to a national call to bring down the number of sex offenses that occur on campuses across the country.

The University of Minnesota, which has had two high-profile rape cases this school year, reported 31 percent more sexual assaults in 2012 than in 2008, reflecting the change at colleges across the state. Across Minnesota, the number of reported sex offenses rose from 115 in 2008 to 141 in 2012, according to data supplied by colleges as required under the federal Clery Act.

The surge in reported cases is a sign that more victims are coming forward as police and colleges improve how they handle the crime, campus observers say. Despite the increased awareness, the actual number of sexual assaults — both reported and not — remains steady. One in five women are assaulted on campus, according to a White House report last month. President Obama announced a task force to address what he called "an affront to our basic decency."

"We've come to accept as a norm that this will happen at this rate," said Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "And we've got to actually be outraged."

A close call near campus.

Brittany Bastian, a University of Minnesota junior, reported her close call to police last November.

She and three friends had just left a midnight show at the St. Anthony Main Theatre when a man in an unmarked black SUV pulled up and asked her and her female friend if they wanted a ride, saying he was a taxi driver.

They refused, and the man drove away.

Two hours later, a man in a black SUV offered a ride to another U student, saying he was a police officer. When she got in the vehicle, he drove to an area west of Interstate 35W and raped her.

While this woman contacted police, few do. Among college-age female sexual assault victims, a 2007 study found only 12 percent reported the crime to police.

Colleges are not required to report sexual assaults that occur near campus, said Clery Center Executive Director Alison Kiss. For the Minneapolis neighborhoods surrounding the U's East Bank campus, 20 sex assaults were reported for 2013, according to the Minneapolis Police Department. That number would not include just students.

The Clery Act, signed in 1990, was originally called the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act. It is named for Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in her residence hall in 1986.

Women often know attacker

Both national- and university-level surveys show that the number of people who have reported a sexual assault in their lifetime has remained the same since the 1980s, said Katie Eichele, director of the U's Aurora Center, which offers support for victims of sexual assault.

Most campus sex assaults go unreported because the victim often knows the attacker, she said.

Bastian said women also know how much society blames victims for these crimes, such as when people ask questions, like, "What were you wearing?"

"If you answer 'wrong' to any of those questions, then somehow the rape is justifiable or the rape occurred because of something that you directly did," she said.

Carla Wilson, a graduate student studying social work at the U, is bothered by the constant barrage of advice in campus crime alerts. Every alert contains the same safety pointers urging students to keep their valuables hidden, to never walk alone and to avoid being distracted.

Often students don't have the choice of walking home with someone, Wilson said. Maybe their friends left them at a party, maybe they wanted to leave the bar before everyone else did, or maybe they did walk with someone and had to go the last block alone.

Instead of implying that a crime is the victim's fault, Wilson said, the U should work to make the community safer so students don't have to worry if they have to walk home alone.

Finding solutions

The U recently announced a number of safety initiatives after two stranger sex assaults last fall and a flurry of other crimes against students. The Board of Regents will vote this week on a $4.1 million proposal to pay more overtime for campus police officers and to add security cameras and lighting.

University Police Lt. Troy Buhta said campus police get the Aurora Center involved as soon as possible after a victim comes to them, and they try to make the victim tell her story only once. Officers also receive training to avoid seeming judgmental or skeptical.

In addition, Eichele said the U is changing its disciplinary process for sexual assaults. Beginning in March, victims will be able to appeal decisions in Student Conduct Code hearings, instead of only the accused having that right.

But advocates say more should be done, and that college is too late to start.

Wilson teaches sex assault prevention classes to middle and high school students through her internship with Tubman, a relationship violence center.

Boys and girls both learn that it's a person's right to say no and that people should look out for one another, she said.

Realizing how sexual assaults occur, who commits these crimes and what is a crime is crucial, Bastian said.

"There needs to be an understanding of what consent is," she said, "and that consent is nonnegotiable."

Rebecca Harrington is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.