Prospective college students and their parents should be cautious when using university crime statistics to select a school.
The statistics are unreliable because of several reasons:
They are accurate only if community members come forward to report crimes. Moreover, knowing why statistics might change from year to year is difficult.
Even when reported, the reports cover only crimes committed on or adjacent to the college campus or other property the college or university owns, not in other areas in a city or town where crime can have an impact on student safety.
And, crimes appear in the statistics in the year they are reported, not when they happen. That is, if the crime is reported at all.
“The big problem with crime statistics … is that violent crime largely goes underreported regardless of where you are,” said Steven Janosik, chairman of educational leadership and policy studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where the nation’s largest mass murder by one gunman happened in April 2007.
Other factors, such as whether or not a college has housing on its campus or if campus security officials have taken courses on properly reporting crimes statistics, can have an impact on a report’s results, too, an investigation by the nonprofit news organization IowaWatch and the Iowa State Daily revealed.
At best, these statistics that federal law says must exist to help students and their parents gauge campus safety when picking a college only give you a snapshot.
An altogether strong understanding of reportable crimes is needed by campus reporting officials in order to maintain complete statistics, the news organizations’ investigation showed, but training of such officials is not required.
Universities that participate in federal financial aid programs across the country are required to report campus crime statistics to the Department of Education as part of the Jeanne Clery Act. The act requires public and private colleges and universities to publish annual crime reports and crime logs, among several other public safety related items.
However, only select crimes make it into a Clery Act report. They must have been committed in locations that fit a specified geographic area and specific categories such as sexual offenses, drug abuse and liquor law violations and aggravated assault, among others.
Many off-campus apartment complexes occupied by hundreds to thousands of students and areas – where bars exist, for example – that dominate the college night scene do not fit within the specified geographic area because they are not close enough to a campus.
Chuck Green, assistant vice president and director of public safety at the University of Iowa, said that there is no way the average person could understand the Clery Act without assistance or training.
MANY FACTORS FOR UNDERSTANDING STATISTICS
Some experts who understand Clery Act reporting argue that university crime reports are better for gauging how crimes are reported at a college or university than whether or not its campus has a high crime rate.
“Just because you have high numbers doesn’t mean the campus is more dangerous. It just might be that people are doing an excellent and better job of reporting,” Janosik said. “These numbers are a better reflection of staff activity and their ability to find violations and report them than it is student behavior.”
David Bergeron, former acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, said larger numbers tend to be an indication that the campus takes reporting seriously.
“One way you can get lots of zeroes is by not making it easy for people to make a crime report,” Bergeron said.
The Department of Education does compliance checks to see if universities are properly reporting crimes. However, Bergeron estimated that fewer than 100 institutions are checked each year.
The only other way the Department of Education does a compliance check is if it receives a complaint or lead from someone who believes the crime statistics are not accurate. Universities found to be reporting incorrectly can face fines up $35,000 per violation and lose their ability to participate in federal student financial aid programs.
DIFFERENCES IN IOWA
The numbers reported by the three state universities for forcible sexual offenses are fairly average for campuses of their size, said Bergeron, who worked with the Department of Education for a little more than 34 years and is now the vice president for postsecondary education policy at the Center for American Progress.
Statistics for the 2012 calendar year will be released in October.
Smaller private universities and community colleges around Iowa report a range of numbers in the forcible sexual offense category.
Grinnell College, which the Department of Education reported as having 1,693 enrolled students, reported the same number of sexual offenses as ISU in its 2011 report: six. Bergeron said this most likely means Grinnell has a strong system in place for encouraging students to report.
On the other side is Iowa Central Community College, in Fort Dodge, Webster City and Storm Lake, with a reported enrollment of 6,298 students in 2011 but no reported forcible sexual offenses in 2011 and 2010, and one in 2009. Those statistics, and the college’s size, led Bergeron to say Iowa Central most likely was “not encouraging reporting in a positive way.”
Joe Wright, security coordinator for Iowa Central Community College, said the college reports all offenses its officials are made aware of and discusses reporting crime with students during orientation at the start of the school year.
Wright has attended Clery Act reporting training, but does not do so yearly because of the difficulty of finding training sessions in the area.
The amount of students living off campus can affect the statistics.
Kirkwood Community College, in Cedar Rapids, reported no forcible sexual assaults from 2009 through 2011, but Melissa Jensen, the college’s emergency services and campus security director, attributed that to a lack of on-campus housing.
Campus crime statistics also can be thrown off by the fact that a crime is counted the year it is reported, not when it takes place.
David Visin, associate director of public safety at the UI, said the university received a report in 2012 of forcible sexual abuse that took place in the 1960s. It will be included in the crime statistic report released in October even though it took place more than 40 years ago.
Bergeron cautioned that the statistics each university shows the public is only as good as the reporting abilities of those keeping the records.
Training on how to report crimes for the Clery Act is not mandatory and schools have flexibility in how they choose to keep their crime records.
The Department of Education only offers online courses, which university officials said were not adequate to fulfill all of their questions.
All three regent universities in Iowa attend Clery Act training programs regularly from companies outside of the Department of Education.
Jensen said Kirkwood officials have taken Clery Act training courses, but not yearly.
CLERY ACT CONTINUALLY CHANGING
The Clery Act, formally known as the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act, has changed significantly since its creation in 1990.
Bergeron said several have been for the better. They include the addition of geography for reporting, separate categories for hate crimes and more defined definitions of forcible and non-forcible sexual offenses.
But improvements still are needed, he said. For example, no distinction exists that explains the more serious crimes in the reports.
Visin said upcoming training sessions are to include information on the addition in reports of new crime categories like dating violence and stalking. He and Green said defining such crimes is going to be difficult. Bringing in factors that include online incidents, for example, will make it hard to determine geography.
Jerry Stewart, ISU director of public safety, said knowing if statistics from year to year go up or down because of changes in crime, or simply because of changes in reporting still will be difficult. A higher number in a category could mean that crime has increased, or it may mean the campus has done a better job encouraging students to report.
VIEWING MULTIPLE REPORTS ENCOURAGED
If students and parents look at crime reports, they should be aware that colleges and universities also may report crime statistics to the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of the Uniform Crime Reporting index, though this is not required.
The FBI and Clery Act reports show vastly different numbers. Reports to the FBI are broken down into more categories and more types of crimes than reported for the Clery Act reporting.
ISU, the UI and UNI report crime statistics for both the FBI and Clery Act.
Experts at the three universities are reluctant to say which reports are more helpful to the community, believing both have merits because they show different crimes and different geographic locations. The UI’s Green said students and parents would get a more complete picture of crime if they study both reports.
Janosik and Bergeron said both reports accurate, but only a reflection of how the two data sets meet their particular reporting guidelines.
“For me, the real value of the crime statistics for students is that it makes them very aware of their need to take steps to be careful of themselves and for those around them,” Bergeron said.
Consistent information is key to teaching students to report a crime. Bergeron suggested schools start right away at orientations and then continue to repeat the message.
“A notice in the dorm doesn’t work,” Bergeron said. “It’s not active, not persistent and it’s not explaining why they should report.”
ABOUT THIS REPORTKatelynn McCollough spent the summer as an IowaWatch reporter poring through Clery Act reports and interviewing sources. She compiled this IowaWatch report and a coinciding report at the Iowa State Daily, where she is editor in chief for the 2013-14 school year.