The Unintended Consequences of Campus Crime Reporting

Part 2 of this article, Surrounded by Data but Starved for Meaning – Crime Data in 2022 is also available.

Seeking Transparency and Accountability

Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old Lehigh University first year student, was assaulted and murdered in her dorm room in 1986. After her death her parents learned that the attack on their daughter was one of 38 violent crimes at Lehigh in three years. Clery’s parents argued in court that if they had known that Lehigh had this many violent crimes each year, Jeanne would not have attended. They were awarded $2 million dollars. 

Four years later, the U.S. Government passed the Clery Act, requiring the thousands of universities receiving federal financial aid to increase the awareness of crime on college campuses so that students (and their parents) would be more informed in selecting their university and universities would be more accountable to public with regards to the safety of their campuses.

According to the Clery Act, Clery statistics are intended to be compared and contrasted across institutions of size, type, and location as the definitions for the crimes are standardized. The Clery Center clarifies that making these comparisons should be done through a lens of other potential variables including: race, gender, sexual orientation, type of institution (suburban, rural, urban, etc.), campus police department versus a nonsworn public safety department, etc.

A great resource for comparing universities’ Clery statistics is the U.S. Department of Education’s Campus Safety and Security data analysis tool. This helpful resource allows you to compare university crime data based on 1) institutional state, 2) institutional city, 3) institutional type (2-year, 4-year, non-profit, profit, public, private), 4) institutional enrollment, and 5) academic programs. 

Dartmouth Proud to be 2nd in Nation for Reports of Campus Rape

In 2016, the Washington Post published a list of the colleges where the most rapes had occurred. The Post wisely decided to include the enrollment size as a factor in determining where rape was most prevalent. Their results indicated, in 2016, that Reed College (1.3%), Wesleyan (1.2%), and Swarthmore College (1.1%) had the highest rates of rape in the nation. The Post talked to a Reed spokesman who indicated the results were not a surprise and that they were pleased to be making progress in increasing students’ willingness to report sexual violence. 

Other colleges indicated similar accolades for an increase in reported rapes on their campuses. The colleges with the two highest numbers of reported rapes in a year, irrespective of institutional size, both reported to the Post that these results are seen as a positive at their college. Dartmouth College, which reported 42 rapes in 2014, published an article proudly acclaiming that, “Dartmouth comes second in national study of reports of campus rapes.”

In fairness to Reed, Wesleyan, and Swarthmore, Jake New, in an article called “Dubious Data”, noted that Clery data only focuses on crimes on campus and many colleges, like New York University, have larger proportions of students living off campus and therefore often report zero rapes. On the flip side, small liberal arts colleges like Reed, Wesleyan, and Swarthmore, often have over 90% of their students living on campus for multiple years, and therefore may report much higher numbers of rapes. 

Support for claims like Dartmouth’s, however, are relatively common. Laura Dunn, the founder and executive director of a victim advocacy organization, SurvJustice, stated, “schools with higher rates (of rape) are actually doing a better job of encouraging reporting and addressing the issue.” A national leader for victim advocacy is indicating higher rates of rape should be viewed in a positive light.

SurvJustice, stated, “schools with higher rates (of rape) are actually doing a better job of encouraging reporting and addressing the issue.”

So What’s Better? More or Less Rapes Reported?

Remember, the Clery Act was created to help students and parents improve their college selection decisions by having the ability to compare crime rates at these colleges and the government has a database of campus crime data that makes it easier for families to make these comparisons. However, when comparisons are done and the results identify the colleges with more sexual crime per student than other colleges, this is touted as a good thing, because more reports of sexually-related crime indicates better promotion of reporting. How are we supposed to know when these higher rates of sexual assault are due to proactive messaging about reporting versus actual risks to being sexually assaulted?

If the crime statistics are going to be used to indicate that higher rates indicated better awareness and reporting, do we still need the Clery Act? It seems odd to congratulate colleges who have an increase in sex-related crimes due to their progress in reporting. In researching this article, I spoke with more than one Clery Compliance Officer and confirmed even their confusion in interpreting sexual crime data. One of them shared with me,

“It is hard enough for the professionals in this industry to understand what the government deems as a countable ‘Clery’ statistic. Let alone to expect the general public to understand. I don’t think anyone will ever be able to pull Clery statistics and determine by “reported/alleged” crimes which colleges are safer (and many of the reported crimes were not proven with an outcome of guilt, and some were not even investigated.)”

That is certainly not a ringing endorsement for reviewing this data. Evidently, Clery Compliance staff members are often well aware of how the reported data can be twisted and used to send different messages. One Clery Compliance staff member shared,  

“of all the data generated by requirements of the Clery Act, the crime statistics are the most laborsome and potentially the most sought out information. However, they are possibly the most confusing and even borderline misleading, and probably the least valuable to focus on when trying to determine or compare safety on college campuses.”

An Attempt at a Clery Crime Comparison Table?

I could have pulled any sample of colleges but since I have lived in Central Texas for the past 11 years, I thought I would stick with this area. Below are 16 colleges that are the largest state universities in Texas. There are certainly other factors which could have been accounted for, but the tool the federal government provides, only offers a few variables.

2020 Clery Data for 16 Largest State Universities in Texas

What Does This Table Tell Us?

The data above indicate that Tarleton State has either the highest rape/student in this group or is doing the best job at encouraging students to report sex-related crime. Compared to the U. of Texas El Paso, Tarleton State has 8 rapes per 10,000 students at UTEP has zero. UTEP is 56% female and therefore has about 14,000 female students. National data has shown in multiple studies that over 20% of college women are sexually assaulted in college. A recent study of over 180,000 students at the top research universities in the U.S. (AAU institutions), revealed that 26% of women experienced rape or sexual assault in college. Amazing, not one female student out of 14,000 reported a rape at UTEP. If we add in the one reported dating violence incident and one reported fondling incident, we might conclude that UTEP is one of the safest large state universities in the nation when it comes to sexual crimes.

In the category of dating violence, the 40,000 student Texas Tech University leads the way with about five students out of 10,000 reporting dating violence per year. U. of Texas Arlington, a school with 8,000 more students, had zero reported incidents of dating violence last year. Is it impressive or concerning that school of over 48,000 students had zero reported incidents of dating violence in 2020? 

Is it impressive or concerning that school of over 48,000 students had zero reported incidents of dating violence in 2020?

None of the 15 other universities in this sample comes anywhere near Texas A&M at the number of reporting stalkings per student last year. Twenty-three out of 10,000 students at Texas A&M reported being stalked in 2020, which was actually down from 29 in 2019. The next closest school, U. of Houston, was less than one-third Texas A&M’s percentage. The University of Texas Dallas, a school of over 28,600 students, reported zero cases of stalking in 2020. The U. of Texas Austin and Texas State University lead the way in reported fondlings per 10,000 students, both having 2.4%. It is notable that seven of the universities reported zero or one fondling in 2020.

In light of the fact that many of these reported sexual crimes are so low, I compared some of these universities’ data in 2019 versus 2020. It is worth noting that annual swings in percentage changes can be extreme. For example, Texas A&M dropped from 12 dating violence incidents in 2019 to 3 in 2020. I wonder what Texas A&M would say lead to this 400% drop in dating violence in one year? On the other hand, Lamar University experienced a 300% increase in dating violence incidents from 2019 to 2020 (which meant they increased from 2 to 6 dating violence incidents.)

Some of the universities revealed changes in both a positive and negative direction from 2019 to 2020. Sam Houston State University increased by over 1,000% in rapes (1 to 11), but their dating violence dropped by almost half (8 to 5) and stalking was also down 33% (3 to 1). Obviously, percentage changes exaggerate the changes occurring when the numbers are so small.

Are We Better Off?

The purpose of the Clery Act is to allow for comparisons across institutions of size, type, and location since the definitions for the crimes are standardized. The analysis of this article focused on the 16 largest (size) public (type) universities in Texas (location). I offered some comparisons – you may have some of your own. In my thirty years in higher education, I have interacted with thousands prospective students and parents. In all that time not once have I ever been asked about a university’s Clery data. Why might this be? Could it be because few, if any, families have any idea that the Clery Act even exists? Maybe it is because this information is extremely difficult to find, which is the subject of my next article. Some of it has to do with the fact that a university’s Clery data are difficult to decipher due to the many categories and terms that often are not well understood.

No matter the reason, even presented with the table above, will this data impact your decision on where to send a child to college? I believe a statistics expert would find little significance in analyzing the small differences per student in the table, other than the fact that Texas A&M either has a stalking problem or one of the best education programs in Texas to increase reports of stalking. In addition, I find it hard to believe that half of these large state universities (8 of 16), have zero or one reports of at least one of the sexual crimes. If I were helping one of my children select a college, based on my analysis of the information above, I am not sure I would put much confidence in the accuracy and size the of reported numbers. I know the parents of Jeanne Clery and many others intended to prevent harm by sharing campus crime data, but this part of the Clery Act has room for improvement.   

Part 2 of this article, Surrounded by Data but Starved for Meaning – Crime Data in 2022 is also available.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s