When campus discipline doesn't add up

Temple University reports about 70 disciplinary cases against students for drug offenses in a typical year. Iowa State University, a comparably sized public institution, reports zero.

Anomalies of this kind are peppered throughout the federal database of reports that colleges must file each year to document how they’re dealing with crimes. How these anomalies happen — how one school can report close to 100 disciplinary cases for drugs or alcohol year after year while another school continuously reports zero — isn’t always clear. And the wide variation in these statistics raises questions about how useful they are to the public, or why federal law requires collecting them at all.

Between 2011 and 2014, several schools — many of them large state universities — reported zero or nearly zero liquor law violations and drug abuse offenses, the Student Press Law Center found through public records requests and annual campus safety reports. The SPLC focused on about 15 large public universities, chosen at random.

Statistics from the federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act provide an incomplete picture of the realities of campus crime by presenting a limited slice of data with little to no context, said Dennis Gregory, a veteran higher-education administrator, campus safety expert and professor at Old Dominion University who has researched the Clery Act extensively and helped amend it in 2013.

“I have always been a critic of the Clery Act in the sense that I don’t believe that it does provide a very accurate or true reflection of the safety on a campus,” Gregory said. “I think it’s improving, but it’s still not there.”

But some campus safety advocates say the Clery Act — signed into law in 1990 after the on-campus rape and murder of its namesake, a Lehigh University student, ignited a nationwide debate on college safety and transparency — isn’t meant to capture the whole picture of a university’s crime record.

“The Clery statistics represented reported crime stats, so they will not capture everything that has happened as not all crimes are reported,” said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus. “The other part of the law requires disclosures about policies — or a summary of campus policies from alcohol and drugs, sexual assault, [domestic violence] and stalking, entry into building, et cetera. These summary policies provide current and prospective students and employees with information on safety so as to be proactive.”

Clery Act reports divide alcohol and drug offenses into several categories depending on where the crime occurred: on-campus areas, on-campus housing including residence halls, public property — “including thoroughfares, streets, sidewalks, and parking facilities that are within the campus, or immediately adjacent to and accessible from the campus” — and non-campus buildings or properties “owned or controlled by a student organization that is officially recognized by the institution; or … owned or controlled by an institution that is used in direct support of, or in relation to the institution’s educational purposes, is frequently used by students, and is not within the same reasonably contiguous geographic area of the institution.”

Low numbers can indicate that crime is concentrated in off-campus areas rather than on campus, Kiss said, though she added that the reasons for low numbers are difficult to generalize. In the annual reports, campus crime statistics are also split between “referrals” and “arrests.” The former category indicates incidents referred to student discipline offices.

And high numbers — perhaps counterintuitively — are often a positive sign for campus safety, particularly when it comes to sexual assault, which is generally vastly underreported both on and off campus.

Higher numbers, Kiss said, are a signal that students are coming forward to report crimes and get assistance.

Still, campus sexual assault statistics have come under scrutiny in the past few years as universities have faced federal probes into their Title IX policies and students have protested their schools’ handling of sexual assault cases. A 2014 investigative report by the Student Press Law Center and the Columbus Dispatch, “Campus Insecurity,” found that many universities serially underreported sexual assault offenses on their campuses. A review of 12 years of Clery crime reports discovered that one-fourth of institutions with on-campus housing, where violent crime is most likely to occur, claim never to have had a sexual assault.

A narrow glimpse at campus safety

While the SPLC did not find evidence that universities have misreported drug and alcohol violation numbers, low numbers in Clery campus safety reports can provide an incomplete picture of the reality of drugs and alcohol on campus. Clery reports only include violations of liquor laws, defined as “the violation of state or local laws or ordinances prohibiting the manufacture, sale, purchase, transportation, possession, or use of alcoholic beverages.”

Incidents of driving under the influence and public drunkenness are not included in Clery statistics. And with alcohol and drug charges culled differently by each university police department — some, for example, defined DUIs based on the substance involved in the incident; others lumped drug DUIs in with the more common alcohol charges — and muddled by differences in state laws on what constitutes DUIs and other charges, side-by-side comparisons were impossible to make.

In its Clery statistics, the University of Mississippi, which enrolls more than 20,000 students, reported 62 liquor law violation arrests in 2011 — more than the 30 in 2012, 60 in 2013 and 21 in 2014.

The Clery report, meanwhile, lists just one disciplinary referral for liquor law violations in 2011 and zero from 2012-14.

But because of the Clery Act’s narrow reporting requirements, the actual number of alcohol-related incidents on campus is higher when including charges of public drunkenness and DUI. (This exception is noted prominently in the 2014 numbers.)

In public records obtained by the SPLC, Mississippi listed 174 alcohol arrests in calendar year 2012, 170 in 2013 and 113 in 2014. It also listed 120 DUI arrests in 2012, 118 in 2013 and 35 for 2014.

A university police representative said the apparent discrepancy — many more arrests for alcohol-related crimes in the university’s own police records as opposed to the small numbers reported to the Department of Education under Clery — is merely a result of the Clery Act’s narrower definition of what constitutes a reportable alcohol offense.

Public drunkenness charges (which do not require reporting under Clery) accounted for the vast majority of alcohol arrests at Mississippi between 2012-14: 87 percent of alcohol arrests in 2012, 81 percent in 2013 and 83 percent in 2014. These percentages do not include DUIs, because such charges can relate either to alcohol or other substances. DUIs also made up significant chunks of alcohol and drug incidents.

University police arrested 108 students for drug violations in 2011, 83 in 2012, 105 in 2013 and 43 in 2014. Meanwhile, the Clery report of disciplinary violations listed just one drug referral in 2011, two in 2012, four in 2013 and three in 2014.

While this number too may seem anomalous — that far more students are arrested for drugs than are disciplined for drugs — the explanation may again be attributable to what the Clery Act defines as reportable. If a student is both arrested and also referred for disciplinary action, federal Clery guidelines instruct universities to count the infraction only once, as an arrest. This leads to disciplinary figures that can appear implausibly small for institutions of Mississippi’s size.

Public drunkenness and DUI statistics should be included in annual safety reports, Gregory said, in order to offer a more accurate glimpse at drinking on campus.

Tougher on drugs?

Unpacking the crime statistics in annual safety reports can also reveal nuances in how different campuses handle alcohol and drug violations. A low number of discipline referrals is not necessarily cause for alarm, said Sara Kellogg, assistant dean and director of the Office of Student Conduct at Iowa State University, which reported zero drug abuse referrals for years 2011-14 in its 2014 and 2015 Clery reports.

“We don’t double-report,” Kellogg said.

Reporting zero referrals indicates that all drug cases were reported to campus police rather than relegated to the student conduct office, Kellogg said, showing that the school takes drug violations seriously and treats them as crimes.

“Our office has not received any drug cases without a police report, thus, they (the police) make the Clery report (under arrests),” she said in an email.

Iowa State, which enrolls more than 34,000 students, reported 89 total drug arrests in 2011, which has gradually increased to 141 arrests in 2014. On the other hand, similar-sized Temple University, which reported 106 disciplinary referrals for drugs in 2014, only reported seven drug arrests that same year.

“If a campus is reporting higher referral numbers versus arrest for such violations, it may mean that the institution intends to adjudicate these violations through campus-based disciplinary actions as opposed to arrest/citation and summons via law enforcement,” said a spokesperson at the U.S. Department of Education, which monitors Clery statistics through its Clery Compliance Division by conducting “in-depth campus crime program reviews to identify any violations of the statute and/or the Department’s regulations.”

Compliance reviews can be sparked by complaints from crime victims, victim advocates or officials from the university itself. Some institutions lack a designated Clery compliance coordinator, Gregory said, which can lead to lapses in reporting procedures. And at some campuses with a designated coordinator, the job is a part-time gig and therefore might not be considered a top priority to the person performing it, he said.

In contrast to its drug numbers, in the Clery report, Iowa State reported 378 alcohol referrals in 2014, less than the previous few years, including 605 referrals in 2011. Alcohol arrests totaled 243 in 2014 and 377 in 2011.

Iowa State also provided to the SPLC the numbers of drug and alcohol student conduct charges for years 2011-14, although the violations were not divided based on the specific substance or charge. The school tallied 282 total drug and alcohol charges in school year 2011-12, which increased to 366 in 2014-15.

Those cases were likely referred to the student conduct office by the campus or community police, Kellogg said, adding that not everything the office charges is Clery reportable, like many off-campus issues or violations.

According to Clery reports, Florida State University, which enrolls more than 41,000 students, arrested 323 students for liquor law violations in 2011, but police records obtained by the SPLC show only 303 alcohol incidents that year. Some of these incidents may have resulted in multiple arrests, said Jim Russell, deputy chief of the university police.

“For instance, an officer receives a report of a party in a dorm room,” Russell said. “That will be recorded as one incident under one case number, but the case might end up with two, three, four, etc., arrests under that one case.”

Clery statistics and raw incident-report data fall under two different data sets, Russell said, and are expected to be different. “Incidents” refers to any reported activity that results in a police record, even if it doesn’t result in an arrest or disciplinary action. For example, if a student is suspected of smoking marijuana based on an odor coming from his dorm room, but the police find no evidence of drugs and do not proceed with an arrest, this is still listed as an incident in university police records. The student wouldn’t be sent to campus disciplinary proceedings, letting his case — at least as far as statistics go — dissolve.

“Variances between the number of violations reported/case numbers and actual arrest numbers, especially under Clery reporting guidelines, is expected and normal,” he said. “Had our arrests been equal to the number of case numbers generated, I would be alarmed, because that would mean that the persons responsible for capturing the data were not digging deep enough into the reports by reading each one, and identifying, properly, the reportable data.”

At most of the schools the SPLC focused on, raw numbers of reported alcohol and drug incidents were higher than the referral or arrest numbers shown in Clery reports, due to many factors. Not only are some charges, such as public drunkenness and DUI, notably excluded from Clery reporting requirements, but some reported violations also did not result in arrests. Officers might not have had probable cause to make an arrest in some cases, for example.

Florida State reported 177 drug incidents in 2011, but police arrested 123 students for drug violations that same year. The discrepancy evened out over the next few years, and in 2014, there were 148 reported drug violations and 177 drug arrests.

Drug arrest numbers are much higher in Florida State’s Clery reports than disciplinary referrals; Clery reports show only five drug referrals in 2011 and seven in 2014. Referral and arrest numbers for alcohol hover around equal figures, suggesting that typical outcomes in alcohol cases are less serious than in drug cases.

Piecing the puzzle together

When the parents of a prospective college student read a university’s annual safety report and sees low numbers of drug and alcohol violations, they might feel relieved. But Clery reports don’t always provide a genuine glimpse into the culture of alcohol and drugs on campus.

Campus police representatives maintain that low numbers aren’t necessarily a glaring sign of underreporting — they’re merely squeezed by a framework of narrow reporting requirements that reveal only a limited window into campus misbehavior. Parents and concerned parties willing to delve deeper into the issue can piece together a more meaningful picture of campus safety using resources such as the Department of Education’s Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report and daily crime logs published by campus police departments, another component of the Clery Act.

But alcohol abuse prevention groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, say colleges aren’t doing enough to remain transparent about all types of alcohol violations.

Becky Iannotta, spokeswoman for the organization, said MADD recommends “campuses create a centralized system-wide reporting mechanism for recording alcohol violations and alcohol involvement in campus rule or law violations.”

MADD has also urged campuses to form coalitions with local off-campus police departments and other law enforcement agencies to ensure the strict enforcement of drinking laws in college environments.

Gregory said schools should include contextual information in Clery statistics, such as the size of the school and whether it is in an urban, rural or suburban setting. “For instance, if there are two aggravated assaults at, say, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, that has a much smaller impact on the safety of the campus than it does if those same two occurred at a small, private, church-affiliated school in rural Pennsylvania,” he said. “Clery should report the statistics in the way that the FBI reports general crime statistics, which is crimes per so many people.”

And institutions need to ensure that they’re presenting the statistics in a clear way that parents and outside parties can engage with, Gregory said, adding that more people probably read the annual reports now, due to increased national discussions of sexual assault on campus.

“If the data are not being used for the purposes that the Clery Act was intended to deal with, then it’s not really important which data you report, because nobody’s paying attention to it, nor do they trust it, nor do they think it’s accurate or complete,” he said. 

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