SPLC-Columbus Dispatch investigation spotlights epidemic underreporting of campus sexual assault

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

This is, of course, nonsense. The college administrators whosign and file these patently false crime reports, year after year, are eitherindifferent to campus safety or are knowingly lying about it. And the federalcrime reporting statute, the Clery Act, is so poorly enforced by a credulousU.S. Department of Education that the risk of getting caught and (minimally)fined – invariably, years too late to result in meaningfully improved reportingfor 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 ajoint project of the Student Press Law Center and the Dispatch’s investigative reporting team of Colin Binkley, JillRiepenhoff and Mike Wagner. Reporter Sara Gregory, an SPLC journalism fellow,spent the past year analyzing 12 years of annual crime disclosures compiled bythe Department of Education – analysis the Department has itself failed toattempt – and then wrestling with hidebound campuses over public documents thatshould have been readily disclosed. 

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

Such systematic and repeated underreporting cannot conceivably have goneunnoticed by the Department of Education, the agency charged with enforcingClery Act compliance – and yet it has. The Department has either beenignorant of, or complicit in, an industry-wide epidemic of “rape blindness.” Ineither event – incompetence or purposeful concealment – a thoroughcongressional investigation is warranted.

The contempt for public accountability exemplifiedby colleges’ casual disregard of Clery Act disclosure obligations issymptomatic of a much larger cancer metastasizing within higher education – thecancer of image-obsessed concealment. It manifests itself most dangerously infalsified crime reports, but is being felt campus-wide in the obsessive secrecyenveloping college presidential searches, inunconscionably long delays and dubious “exemption” claims when the public seeks access to records, andin the explosive growth in P.R. functionaries who view their jobs as makingsure no journalist ever gets access to an actual campus decisionmaker.

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

Today’s installment of “Campus Insecurity” is the first of multiplesegments to be published in the Dispatchthis fall, examining where colleges are falling short in their duty todiligently investigate, punish and disclose campus crime. It’s required readingfor anyone working at – or thinking of attending – any college or university, andit’s ripe for follow-up localization by college journalists across the country.

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