Tip Sheet: Covering campus discipline

If its disciplinary statistics are to be believed, something curious happened at Arizona State University a few years back.

Arizona State, among the largest schools in the nation, told the federal government that no students were referred for discipline for breaking alcohol laws on its Tempe campus in 2008 or 2009. (ASU, like many institutions of its size, has several campuses — Tempe is the largest and its primary campus for crime reporting purposes.)

The university took a much tougher stance against violators in the years after. According to the statistics ASU reported to the Department of Education, more recent years were marked by a surge in discipline for alcohol-related crime: ASU reportedly saw 989 disciplinary referrals for on-campus liquor law violations in 2010, 1066 in 2011 and 884 in 2012.

Perhaps the university could have cracked down on its enforcement or changed the way it counts such crimes — or maybe there was a massive, on-campus event that accounted for such a giant leap in such incidents from one year to the next. There are a number of factors that could contribute to changes in the figures from year-to-year at the same institution, or between figures at institutions of similar sizes.

But the fluctuating statistics, in this case, were a surprise even to those responsible for compiling and reporting them. After the Student Press Law Center contacted ASU with questions about the alcohol violation inconsistencies — several years with zero reported referrals, followed by a spike to almost 1,000 — Police Commander Michele Rourke reviewed the data and determined a previously undetected “administrative error” was to blame for the uncharacteristically low data.

“As to the administrative error, ASU had a staffing and assignment change in 2009 with the gathering of the Clery statistical data at which point my office took over gathering and reporting all of the data,” Rourke said in an email. “With this transition my office thought the data had been compiled. Quite obviously this did not happen. Until you brought this to our attention we had not been aware of the error.”

In other words, ASU had in fact referred students for disciplinary action for on-campus alcohol-related liquor law violations in 2008 and 2009 — but despite the unusually low numbers, neither the institution nor the federal government had taken a close look at the figure.

ASU has since tried to remedy these errors, Rourke said. Officials have reached out to the Department of Education in an attempt to correct the statistics in its online database but were advised that it would not be possible to change statistics older than those that appear in its most current Annual Security Report. The university is reviewing its data to try to come up with accurate figures for the years in question and will post updated figures on its website when that process is complete, Rourke said.

Like all other colleges and universities that receive federal funds, ASU is obligated to report these statistics in an annual campus security report as part of its requirements under the Clery Act. The Clery Act — initially passed in 1990 and named for a Lehigh University student, Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered in her dorm room — was conceived as an effort to get colleges to be more transparent about crime on and around their campuses. Failure to comply fully with the law can be costly: Each violation carries a potential fine of $35,000.

Under the Clery Act, schools are supposed to keep track of certain types of crimes (sexual assault, burglaries and so on) and classify the incidents according to their proximity to campus. As part of Clery-mandated annual security reports, schools are also expected to compile information about “the number of persons referred for disciplinary action” for weapons, drug and liquor law violations — but this data has, traditionally, received far less attention.

According to the Department of Education’s Clery Act handbook, these figures are supposed to reflect the number of people who violated the law and were referred “to any official who initiates a disciplinary action of which a record is kept and which may result in the imposition of a sanction.”

A closer look at the statistics kept by the Department of Education reveals inconsistencies in the figures reported by colleges of similar sizes, or even in the way a single school reports figures across different years. At ASU, for example, a campus of more than 70,000 students reported not a single on-campus weapons referral from 2009 to 2012; its alcohol referrals, as noted previously, jump from zero in 2008 and 2009 to almost 1,000 in the following years.

So how might you start to find out what’s behind that data? If you’re at a public university, you could start by seeking out public records that reflect disciplinary data.

In filing your request, you’ll want to be as specific as possible about what you’re looking for — for example, you might ask for the total alcohol-related cases referred for campus disciplinary action in a given year, broken down based on the type of violation and the disciplinary outcome (whether a sanction was imposed, the case was dismissed and so on).

Colleges generally spell out their policies and rules in student handbooks and codes of conduct. If possible, also ask your school to provide any necessary definitions or student conduct codes to cross-reference the types of violations included in the figures provided — that way, you could sort out which disciplinary cases constituted potential violations of the law and which were only violations of university policy. In making your request, also be clear that you’re seeking data broken down in accordance with the calendar year— not academic or fiscal year — because that’s the timetable used in the compilation of Clery statistics.

Whether you’re able to retrieve the records related to discipline that could be compared to the figures your school is reporting as part of its Clery Act duties, you’ll want to try to talk to those who are responsible for overseeing the disciplinary system or otherwise involved in keeping track of referrals and outcomes. Depending on the structure of these processes at your school, this could mean talking to officials who deal with student conduct, the police department, residence life staff or someone from another office — or all of the above.

Along the way, the following questions are important to keep in mind: What counts as a “disciplinary referral” at your institution? (Does this line up with federal requirements, as outlined in the Department of Education’s Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting?); From which officials/offices does your school gather disciplinary referral data? Has your school changed its process in recent years? (If so, how? And why?); Who oversees the collection of that data? Who oversees judicial process? Do they overlap?; How do your college’s disciplinary statistics stack up to peer institutions?; Are there any years with “0” referrals reported?; And how clearly does your school publicize these statistics in its annual crime reports?

Taking a closer look at campus discipline could be valuable on several fronts, even beyond the scope of the Clery figures. In many cases, the campus disciplinary process is not fully open to the public, and while high-profile cases might receive campus media attention, it’s also valuable to take a step back to examine the larger picture of cases and their outcomes. Analyzing those trends and seeking out more information about the campus disciplinary system could serve an important purpose of educating readers about a process that has implications for both individual students and the campus at large.