WASHINGTON, D.C. — Although recent federal and state legislationhas made it easier for student journalists to access crime informationat their colleges and universities, results from a survey conducted bythe Student Press Law Center reveal some college publications are stillstruggling with access to basic campus crime information.
According to results from a nonscientific survey of college journalistsat the National College Media Convention in Washington, D.C., held Nov.8-10, 45.3 percent, or almost half of the 216 respondents, said they hadnot received a copy of their school’s annual crime statistics report.
In addition, 38.1 percent, or almost one-third of those surveyed, indicatedit was somewhat difficult or difficult to access their school’s crime incidentlogs.
The survey asked respondents to rate the availability and ease of accessto crime information on college campuses on a scale from very easy to difficult.
In 1998, amendments to the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus SecurityPolicy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, referred to as the Clery Act, pavedthe way for increased access to essential information about criminal activityon college campuses around the country.
The law, which was enacted in 1990, compels all colleges and universitiesreceiving federal funding to assemble and publish an annual crime statisticsreport and maintain police logs that are open to the public. Statisticscan be reported via a Web site as long as the school notifies studentsof their availability and provides the specific Web address where the statisticscan be found. Refusal to disclose these public records could result infines of up to $25,000 per violation from the U.S. Department of Education.Another change to the law made in 1998 allows schools to release the outcomeof certain disciplinary proceedings without violating the federal FamilyEducational Rights and Privacy Act.
The success of the laws, however, has been limited by widespread confusionabout their application.
Meagan Hoffman, the news editor for The Periscope, the studentnewspaper at Shorter College in Georgia, said she was unaware that herschool had any responsibility to make crime information accessible to students.
“I have never received [a crime statistics report],” Hoffman said. “Idid not even know that they had that information. I thought they just keptdifferent records.”
Amy Jo Brown, editor of the BG News at Bowling Green State University,said campus police at her school often go out of their way to block thenewspaper’s access to campus crime logs.
“If a student gets into trouble, we have to fight to get the information,and we still do not always get it,” Brown said.
Beth Hagemeister, copy editor at The Bulletin, the student newspaperat Emporia State University, agreed. She said the campus safety departmentdiscloses the least amount of information to which it is legally obligated.
“They will give us the reports on all charges filed,” Hagemeister said.”The only way we can get them to tell us anything if something illegalhappens is if someone takes legal action. Even then, we are not alwaysclear about how often they update the information.”
Some students have discovered that the best way to access crime informationis to develop a relationship with the campus police.
John Arweiler, the assistant news editor of The Daily OrangeatSyracuse University, said gaining his security officer’s trust helped himobtain the desired records.
“Setting up weekly meetings with campus security officials really helpsbuild a good relationship,” Arweiler said. “Eventually you start to talkabout things besides the crime log and then they see that you are humanand you are just doing your job and reporting the news.”
According to Hagemeister, security officers often resist releasing informationout of fear that they will be the target of a malevolent expose by thestudent paper.
“Sometimes I wonder how ignorant they think we are,” she said. “We needto let them know that we are not trying to expose anything, we are justtrying to protect the students.”
Some campus reporters have found alternative sources for crime information.Brown said she bypasses her campus police officers and contacts countyofficials instead.
“We pick up both the campus crime and the city blotters,” Brown said.”The city is very helpful. They pretty much let us know what is going on.When we go to the campus police for information, they often refer us topeople who are not even there.”
Failure to access incident reports and crime statistics have led someto charge that schools act intentionally to misrepresent crime information.
“Campus crime is not accurate at all,” Hagemeister said. “Students liveclose to campus and when most crime is happening near campus then it ishappening to the students, but the only way we find out about these incidentsis word of mouth.”
Arweiler said journalists have a responsibility to accurately informthe student body about criminal activity on campus.
“Our university is located in the outskirts of the city but we stillhave those risks,” he said. “We have to make sure that things get reportedso that students know what is going on and can protect themselves.”
Other findings in the survey:
- 40 percent of respondents indicated it was somewhat difficult or difficultto get a copy of their school’s crime statistics report.
- 40 percent of those surveyed said they had not seen their school’s crimelog or incident reports.
- More than one-third of respondents characterized their school’s crime logsas a somewhat inaccurate or very inaccurate reflection of crime on campus.
- Forty-six percent of those surveyed described their school’s performancein making campus crime available to the public as average, while 23.2 percentsaid it was below average.
- More than half of those surveyed (52.8 percent) said they had not triedto access records stating the outcomes of disciplinary or campus courtproceedings.
- 44 percent of the students who attempted to access information from eitherdisciplinary files or campus court proceedings said they were not successful.
The SPLC publication Covering Campus Crime is available onlineat: http://www.splc.org/resources/ccc/cccindex.html
SPLCSpecial Report: Testing for Compliance (8/30/99)