Hundreds of angry students at Dickinson College recently marched on the administration building to demand greater public disclosure of sexual assaults at the 2,300-student private institution near Harrisburg, Pa.
The students obtained some concessions — their administrators agreed to more readily activate the campus-wide alert system upon learning of sex crimes — and they also spotlighted what Pennsylvania’s Patriot-News called the “top-secret justice system” that enables colleges to minimize public disclosure of campus offenses, even violent ones.
In an extensive investigation published last year, the Center for Public Integrity analyzed the annual crime statistics filed with the U.S. Department of Education by colleges nationwide in compliance with the federal Clery Act. The Center concluded that, in one recent year, 77 percent of all colleges reported zero rapes. That’s not zero rape arrests or zero rape prosecutions — it’s zero rape complaints.
If that number seems suspiciously low, one factor may be: Who’s doing the reporting? Student journalists often are given the impression that a crime isn’t really a crime at all if it is handled through disciplinary rather than law enforcement channels. Some campuses have even gone to ingenious lengths to make sure that anything their security officers write down is kept in a database shared with Student Affairs or Student Life, so that it can be categorized as a (confidential) “student record” and not a (publicly disclosable) “police record.”
While it is true that the disciplinary records belonging to individual students generally are exempt from public disclosure, the fact that a case is handled through a student conduct board does not absolve police of the responsibility to create a record that the crime occurred. Every incident must be logged on the daily and annual Clery Act reports that federal law requires of all colleges, even private ones.
If such incidents do not get logged, then the college’s statistics will be deceptively low. It will be as if the attack never happened.
The apparently systematic underreporting of sex crimes on campus is capable of multiple explanations — but at least part of the explanation appears to be a misperception that only crimes reported to police, not to other college employees, “count” toward the school’s sexual assault total. This is false.
The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidance as to which colleges employees are responsible for making sure that the crimes they learn about are counted for purposes of the Clery Act — and it is more than many colleges (and college journalists) believe.
Any college employee who is responsible for the safety of campus property or has “significant responsibility for student and campus activities” is a “mandatory reporter,” according to the DOE. That includes those working in student conduct, student housing, and anyone else whose job responsibilities might involve taking a complaint from a person victimized by crime.
These employees must notify campus police when crimes are reported to them, so that the incidents may be counted for purposes of giving a complete and non-deceptive portrayal on the Clery report. But there may be reluctance to involve police if the decision has been made to pursue disciplinary rather than criminal redress.
If your college is among that 77 percent reporting that it is rape-free, it is worth asking to see the standards and guidelines that the college is using to define who is responsible for making a Clery Act report and the procedures for how they do so. Colleges should be notifying and training everyone from residence-hall assistants all the way up to the Dean of Student Affairs that the Clery reporting obligations apply to them. And journalists should be verifying whether that training is occurring, is accurate, and is obeyed.