Federal statistics on campus crime present confusing disparities

Absence of theft information, great discrepancies in alcohol violations muddy picture of campus crime in Baltimore

  • All Baltimore colleges follow the same federal guidelines for reporting crimes on campus. But hard-to-explain discrepancies raise questions about the value of these reports in giving students and employees a snapshot of campus safety.
All Baltimore colleges follow the same federal guidelines… (Brendan Cavanaugh, Patuxent…)
September 03, 2012|By Childs Walker and Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

Campus crime statistics reported to the federal government show there were 15 burglaries at Morgan State University in 2010. But a review of the university's daily crime log found twice as many.

When reporting campus crime to the U.S. Department of Education, Morgan State downgraded many burglaries to thefts, following a federal directive that crimes not be reported as burglaries without evidence of unauthorized entry. And thefts — there were more than 100 reported at Morgan State in 2010 — are not included in the federal data on campus crime.

So a prospective or current student searching online for that data would find no evidence that thefts occurred, even though many experts say they are the most common campus crime.

The situation is just one example of the confusion that plagues college crime statistics. While experts say the data are a vast improvement over the available information from earlier decades, the system for informing the public of campus crime remains a work in progress.

"When I have to spend a half-hour explaining to you how to interpret the data, yes, that does call into question how useful it is," said S. Daniel Carter, a longtime campus safety advocate who has trained hundreds of security officials to work with the federal Clery Act.

All of Baltimore's colleges and universities follow the same federal guidelines for reporting crime. These rules, outlined in the 22-year-old Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistic Act, detail which crimes must be tallied in reports published by each institution.

But the rules are rife with gray areas, open to interpretation by campus security officials. And puzzling discrepancies in the numbers from Baltimore campuses raise further questions about the utility of the reports.

Between 2008 and 2010, for example, Morgan State reported 19 referrals for disciplinary action based on liquor law violations. In the same period, the Johns Hopkins University reported 693 such referrals for its Homewood campus and Loyola University Maryland reported 1,933 for its campus.

Adding to the confusion, these Clery reports barely touch on crime in the neighborhoods around city campuses. And Baltimore universities go to strikingly different lengths to keep students and employees informed of nearby incidents.

"It doesn't really tell the whole story," said Ed Skrodzki, head of security at Hopkins.

Concerns about campus crime reporting came to the forefront earlier this year, when Morgan State students questioned whether authorities had done enough to alert them to the dangers posed by student Alex Kinyua. He had been arrested in an on-campus assault two weeks before being accused of killing and cannibalizing a family friend off-campus.

Carter said the data on alcohol offenses and sexual assaults are particularly baffling, because campuses take radically different approaches in handling those issues.

Morgan spokesman Jarrett Carter said the disparity in alcohol referrals is probably caused by cultural differences and strict anti-drinking policies at Morgan. All of Maryland's historically black universities report few liquor violations compared to schools such as Hopkins, Loyola and Towson University.

"You don't find students at historically black colleges having keg parties," Jarrett Carter said. "It would take a lot to get beer or liquor in your room. It's not worth the trouble."

Despite the confusing disparities, S. Daniel Carter said high-profile cases such as the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings and the child sexual abuse scandal in Penn State's football program have helped to increase awareness about the Clery law and added to the urgency of campus crime reporting. Moreover, for all the vagaries in the data, Carter said, prospective students and employees have far easier access than they did 25 years ago to telling statistics about crime on every campus.

"As a practical matter, this information was simply not available to the public," he said. "It's easy to forget that now, but this was basically a closed book."

Several campus officials from Baltimore agreed that the Clery reports are useful, if imperfect. "I think it helps," said Terry Sawyer, vice president for administration at Loyola. "Families have a right to know what security procedures are in place and to have a grasp on the number of criminal incidents."

President George H.W. Bush signed the campus security act into law in 1990 after a four-year crusade by Howard and Connie Cleary in memory of their daughter Jeanne, who was raped and murdered by a fellow student at Lehigh University in 1986.

The law requires colleges and universities to publish annual reports containing three years' worth of crime statistics in categories such as murder, sex offenses, robbery, and liquor and drug violations. It also requires the institutions to provide "timely warnings" of an imminent threat to campus.

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