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Crime-Counting Controversy on New England’s College Campuses

Monday, March 25, 2013

 

College campuses, full of young adults, many on their own or away from home for the first time, present a uniquely difficult challenge when it comes to questions of crime and safety. In New England, where college campuses range from the heart of urban hubs to isolated and rural venues, the array of safety concerns can be as diverse as the landscape.

Increasingly, how to count and catalogue crimes on the nation's campuses is becoming a point of contention as well, with the issue of underreporting, especially of violent and sexual assaults, at the forefront.

SLIDES: The 100 Most Dangerous College Campuses in New England

Clery Act reporting

All colleges and universities in the country that take part in federal financial aid programs are required to document and report crime on and around their campuses under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, better known as the Clery Act.

Under the Clery Act, schools are required to publish an annual security report (ASR), which documents three years of specific crime statistics on campus as well as the school's security policies and procedures and information on the guaranteed rights for sexual assault victims.

The colleges and universities are also required to have a public crime log and to disclose crime stats for incidents that occur on campus, in unobstructed public areas adjacent to the campus and at specific off-campus sites, such as fraternity and sorority houses and remote classrooms.

Required reporting of crimes falls into the seven major categories of criminal homicide, sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft and arson, several of which have their own sub-categories.

But despite the range of categories and sub-categories, critics say the Clery Act fails to accurately report incidents of sexual assault due to loopholes in the reporting requirements. The Center for Public Integrity investigated the reporting back in 2009 and found that exemptions for counselors covered by confidentiality protections served to skew the numbers, as did issues over the definitions of various sexual offenses.

For more details on GoLocal's methodology, go here.

Safety a relative term

Gary Margolis, managing partner at Margolis Healy & Associates, LLC, a professional services firm specializing in higher education and K-12 safety and security, said that universities and colleges continue to be some of the safest places in the country.

Margolis reiterated that the idea of campus safety is relative, with safety at a rural university taking a very different form that safety at an urban college. However, there are consistent aspects as well.

"Some of the crimes that we see on campuses are irrespective of the location of the school," he said.

In order to help parents and students, as well as public safety officials, make sense out of the available campus crime data, Margolis Healy developed the Campus Sentinel app for iPhone and iPad, which provides users with statistics for more than 4,400 colleges and universities, plus additional safety resources, security news and information. An Android version of the app is expected to be released soon.

Fighting back against underreporting

When it comes to sexual assaults and crimes, Margolis said the are a number of reasons why such incidents are underreported, chief among them the fact that it is a very personal and invasive crime.

"It's a very scary proposition to share that story with strangers," he said.

While survivors will often share their experience with close friends, they may be hesitant to do the same with campus officials. A tendency toward victim-blaming in society at large adds to that difficulty.

Margolis said one of the keys to combating the problem of underreporting is developing proper training for public safety and campus officials and building out support networks that reach students and help them feel more comfortable reporting such incidents.

Students weigh in

Michael Rose, a senior at Providence College, said that despite the presentation on sexual assault all freshman students are required to attend, educating them on what real consent is and that "no means no," a cultural shame seems to still be associated with instances of sexual assault, making it difficult for victims to come forward.

"The statistics say that I must know someone who has been the victim of sexual assault, but I have not personally been approached by any friends looking to discuss such an event," he said. "I imagine if someone was the victim of this type of assault they would go to our counseling center to get help. I also feel that the school most likely would not issue an email alert about such an event because it is of such a personal nature. Perhaps it would be better if they did release reports of sexual assaults in order to increase awareness."

An undergraduate student at Clark University, who asked to remain anonymous, said that students and many faculty and administrators at the school have built a strong climate around the issue of sexual assault, and that he believes Clark does quite well in this regard, with most students aware of both the seriousness and subtleties of the issue, and would be comfortable reporting the issue if they felt it was necessary.

Sara Elder, a junior at Bryant University, said she takes the school's crime statistics with a grain of salt.

"I like to look at them and sometimes I just laugh because the numbers are clearly not accurate," she said. "But what school doesn’t want to seem like they have lower incidents of underage drinking and drug arrests when they’re trying to recruit students and their parents to spend $50,000 a year here? I think there’s a lot of universities, even non-profit ones, that act like businesses, and bad statistics are bad for business; students won’t come here if the statistics say the campus isn’t safe, and more important, their parents – who usually pay the tuition – won’t let them. It’s all about publicity." 

Reducing risk, increasing safety

When it comes to staying safe on campus, Margolis said one of the most important steps you can take is to start with a conversation. Students should educate themselves about resources on campus, take advantage of applications like Campus Sentinel, and develop a dialogue and relationship with the school's public safety team. Knowing where to report incident and where to get help can be vital. He also added that parents need to have open and frank conversations with their students about risk-taking and expectations.

"Hope is not a strategy for good decision-making," he said.

 

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