Campus insecurity: Reports on college crime are deceptively inaccurate, shows SPLC/Columbus Dispatch joint investigation

At the University of Memphis, federally mandated crime reports would have the public believe that the college, with 22,000 students, averages fewer than two sexual assaults per year. At Jacksonville’s University of North Florida, home to 16,000 students, campus officials claim to have gone two straight years without a sex crime. Louisiana State (30,000 students) and Florida State (40,000) report a grand total of five sexual assaults each over the most recent two years.

This is, of course, nonsense. The college administrators who sign and file these patently false crime reports, year after year, are either indifferent to campus safety or are knowingly lying about it. And the federal crime reporting statute, the Clery Act, is so poorly enforced by a credulous U.S. Department of Education that the risk of getting caught and (minimally) fined – invariably, years too late to result in meaningfully improved reporting for the students who’ve been misled – effectively deters no one.

These are the takeaways from a devastating story published in today’s Columbus Dispatch as a joint project of the Student Press Law Center and the Dispatch’s investigative reporting team of Colin Binkley, Jill Riepenhoff and Mike Wagner. Reporter Sara Gregory, an SPLC journalism fellow, spent the past year analyzing 12 years of annual crime disclosures compiled by the Department of Education – analysis the Department has itself failed to attempt – and then wrestling with hidebound campuses over public documents that should have been readily disclosed.

Many anecdotal stories have emerged in recent months about individual colleges’ mishandling of violent crime, but today’s special report (“Campus Insecurity”) is the first to authoritatively quantify the magnitude of the undercounting. It’s enormous. Each year, one-half of major colleges claim to have experienced no violent crimes of any kind. Nearly 20 percent – one in five – claim there hasn’t been a single sexual assault in at least 12 years. 

Years of systematic underreporting cannot conceivably have gone unnoticed by the Department of Education, the agency charged with enforcing Clery Act compliance – and yet seemingly it has. The Department has either been ignorant of, or complicit in, an industry-wide epidemic of “rape blindness.” In either event – incompetence or purposeful concealment – a thorough congressional investigation is warranted. 

The systemic contempt for public accountability exemplified by colleges’ casual disregard of Clery Act disclosure obligations is symptomatic of a much larger cancer metastasizing within higher education – the cancer of image-obsessed concealment. It manifests itself most dangerously in falsified crime reports, but is being felt campus-wide in the obsessive secrecy enveloping college presidential searches, in unconscionably long delays and dubious “exemption” claims when the public seeks access to records, and in the explosive growth in P.R. functionaries who view their jobs as making sure no journalist ever gets access to an actual campus decision maker. 

Congress cannot cure colleges entirely of their addiction to secrecy, but it can provide meaningful sanctions for those who disregard their crime reporting obligations. A start would be requiring the general counsel of every college to certify, under penalty of perjury, that each year’s crime statistics were compiled in accordance with the Department of Education’s official Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting. The de-licensure and prosecution of just a few college attorneys will awaken a conscience (or a self-preservation instinct) in the rest. 

This installment of “Campus Insecurity” is the first in a series of articles to be published in the Dispatch this fall examining where colleges are falling short in their duty to diligently investigate, punish and disclose campus crime. It’s required reading for anyone working at – or thinking of attending – any college or university, and it’s ripe for follow-up localization by college journalists across the country.

The SPLC/Dispatch team’s reporting was supported in part by a grant from the nonprofit Fund for Investigative Journalism, which helped underwrite the expense of voluminous requests for public records from colleges nationwide. Sara Gregory’s work for the SPLC is underwritten by a grant from the McCormick Foundation, which supports journalism of civic importance. Sara will discuss her reporting and take questions from college journalists as part of a keynote panel Oct. 31 at the College Media Association’s national convention in Philadelphia.