By John Fees, Co Founder & Managing Director, NGI Group/Grad Guards
Kelly Field wrote an important article in the November 25, 2015, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, "How Much Can Campus-Crime Reports Tell Us about Sexual Assault?" The article focused on what campus crime reports reveal about sexual assaults on college campuses.
The article opens with the statement "The statistic was shocking: Nine out of 10 colleges reported no rapes on their campuses in 2014," and goes on to discuss the limits and difficulties of reporting sexual assaults. Kelly Field does an excellent job of outlining the challenges that face higher education leaders and the complexity involved with both definitions and reporting. In the context of the effort by The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to improve safety, it seems like everyone should agree that publishing accurate and timely data is vital.
The need to accurately report campus safety and crime statistics goes beyond issues involving sexual assault. For instance, campus crime reports vary widely. A quick analysis of the 2014 Clery Act reports of private, four-year colleges and universities with more than 1,000 students would indicate that there are approximately three burglaries per campus reported within university residence halls.
But averages are often misleading. In fact, 43 percent of these schools reported ZERO burglaries; at the same time, 35 percent of schools reported more than three burglaries, and these same schools actually account for 89 percent of all reported burglaries. Is it true 43 percent of schools with residence halls had no crimes, or could there be a problem with reporting? And is it really true that 371 of these same institutions (four-year, private institutions with 1,000 or more students with residence halls) also reported no burglaries in 2012, 2013 and 2014? The Clery data seems implausible.
Could it be true that for more than three years, these 371 institutions did not experience any burglaries within their residence halls, or is something else going on?
The Student Press Law Center has made transparency of such data a major project. Just last year, in conjunction with The Columbus Dispatch, the Student Press Law Center published an important article, "Reports on College Crime Deceptively Inaccurate." The article reports that "even the US Department of Education official who oversees compliance with a federal law requiring that the statistics be posted on Oct. 1 each year admits that they are inaccurate. Jim Moore said that a vast majority of schools comply with the law but some purposely underreport crimes to protect their images; others have made honest mistakes in attempting to comply."
Accurate and timely data on campus safety is required
The Chronicle article quotes Brett Sokolow, a risk management consultant for colleges and universities: "If you look at the surveys, and then look at the numbers colleges are reporting, it looks like a massive cover-up." "Our days of ineptitude have to be done. Congress is going to shove it down our throat if we don’t do it ourselves," he added.
The article from the Ohio Dispatch quotes campus crime researcher Matthew Nobles, a professor at Sam Houston State University: "It's worth questioning whether colleges that report zeros actually have zero crime. It seems unlikely that if you have 10 years of statistics with a university that has on-campus housing and it shows zeros throughout, it’s very, very unlikely that literally nothing ever happens there that could be reportable." It takes only one unreported incident for a college to violate the law.
What can be done?
- Leaders must commit to transparency: Make sure that the institutions culture supports honest reporting. Zero crimes reported should be the goal; if those zeroes are accurate, then celebrate them. However, three years of no crimes reported may be reason for concern. Leaders should, in this case, evaluate the process involved with collecting reports and consider a change.
- Accountability by design: Brett Sokolow suggests that more regulation isn't required, but better management may be. Sokolow "suspects that poor reporting...is more a function of dysfunction than malfeasance" and asserts "colleges should be compelled to designate a senior administrator to collect the crime data and "sign off that the numbers are correct," much as they are required to name a Title IX coordinator."
- Students and their families take notice: Given the pressure on budgets and efforts to grow enrollments, there are strong economic incentives to underreport campus crime. It is prudent to evaluate the school's Clery Report, read the campus newspaper crime reports and speak with your student about the culture on campus.
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