More than 90 U.S. universities and colleges are currently under federal investigation over allegations they are mishandling sexual assault complaints and failing to disclose incidents that could put students at risk.

One of those schools, Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Md., plagued by a scandal involving reports of a gang rape on campus, responded by overhauling its policies and resources related to sexual assault reporting.

Experts say this sort of fast action is an example of why Canada needs a similar law.

U.S. legislation requires American universities and colleges to be open about the number of sexual assaults on their campuses, warn students when they could be at risk and provide adequate security and prevention measures.

"I do think there is a real gap [in Canada]," says Melanie Randall, a law professor and expert on violence against women at Western University in London. Ont.

"There is no legislative overriding framework that can guide postsecondary institutions about their responsibilities, so I definitely think we need something."

U.S. has Clery Act

A CBC News survey released this week created the first-ever database of sexual assault reports to Canadian universities and colleges.

CBC News contacted 87 university and major colleges across Canada over the past six months, and requested the number of sexual assaults reported on each campus between 2009 and 2013.

Seventy-seven schools provided a complete set of data.

In the U.S., universities and colleges have been legally mandated to publish that sort of data for more than 20 years under what’s called the Clery Act.

The act came into force in 1990 following the rape and murder of a 19-year-old college student named Jeanne Clery at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. The goal was to force universities and colleges to be more transparent about crime on their campuses and their efforts to combat it.

When Johns Hopkins University failed to warn students about the alleged gang rape at one of its fraternities in 2013, students turned to the Clery Act to hold the school accountable.

Sam Zorowitz was a volunteer for the school’s sexual assault crisis hotline in 2013 when the call came in about a student who had been sexually assaulted by up to eight members of a campus fraternity.

"I was really shocked and a little bit appalled that essentially two months later, the university made no mention of what was at least a reported act of serious sexual violence on our campus," says Zorowitz, who has since graduated.

He and other students decided to launch a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Education. That investigation is still underway, but Johns Hopkins didn’t wait for the results before taking action.

'I was really lucky to have [the Clery Act] at my disposal ...  I can't imagine what it would be like for Canadian students who might be aware of these really heinous things happening but don't have the same tools to address it and create change on their campuses.' - Eliza Schultz, Johns Hopkins student

"We have concluded that the University should have recorded the incident … and should have issued a timely warning to the community soon after the incident occurred," university president Ronald Daniels wrote in a statement last October.

"The University's failure to have done so is unacceptable, and we are determined that this kind of mistake not happen again."

The school also announced an overhaul to its approach to publicly reporting sexual assault statistics and issuing timely warnings.

"I was really lucky to have [the Clery Act] at my disposal," says Eliza Schultz, another Johns Hopkins student, who was part of the complaint to the U.S. government.

"That's the only reason there has been so much progress on our campus. That's the reason it’s been a safer place. So I can't imagine what it would be like for Canadian students who might be aware of these really heinous things happening but don't have the same tools to address it and create change on their campuses."

Canada needs to follow U.S. lead, experts say

In Canada, postsecondary education is a provincial responsibility, but experts say the country needs to come up with a nationwide solution to the problem of sexual assault reporting.

The CBC News investigation revealed a patchwork approach at Canadian universities and colleges, and that only handful of Canadian schools publicly share the number of sexual assaults reported to their campus.

Campus sexual assault reports

Click on the graphic to see school-by-school data from the CBC News survey. (CBC)

Holly Johnson, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa and the lead investigator on Canada’s first national survey on violence against women, believes "there could be an advantage to having a directive like that."

"I think campuses may be reluctant to be the first one [to publicly report]. They may be reluctant about portraying themselves as a dangerous campus. And so I think if we all come forward and honestly report on what's going on on our campuses, then we can get past that," she says.

She says it could help standardize the way sexual assault data is collected, and it would "certainly raise the level of awareness."

Laura Dunn, who operates ServJustice, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that provides legal support to survivors of sexual violence, says the introduction of the U.S. law revealed that American schools were not always open about crime on their campuses.

"I think what will astound people if something like this is implemented [in Canada] is how many colleges have hidden the rate of crime," says Dunn. "It’s not as if they don’t know what’s happening. It’s more they know and have no obligation right now, and of course what we’ve found is sunshine cures everything," meaning that exposure can right historical wrongs.

"When we know there is a crime rate, we increase security measures, we have better locks on dormitories, better cameras, better security force. All these things kind of build and change to create better safety on campus."

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