For the last four years, West Chester University has been all but free of serious crime.
At least that's what the school told the federal government, and what it assured students and parents on its Web site.
Last month, though, as an Inquirer examination of campus police logs began turning up multiple sexual assaults and burglaries, the university revised the low crime figures it had filed with the U.S. Department of Education.
A single sexual assault in all of 2003 and 2004 morphed into 14 attacks, including 10 in residence halls. Burglaries in those years shot from two to 45.
Administrators blamed the disparities on classification errors - crimes mislabeled as less serious, nonreportable offenses - and not on any cooking of the books.
Yet no matter what created the gap between the official reports and reality at West Chester, the result for its 12,800 students, their parents and legions of prospects was an illusory picture of a campus almost immune to significant crime.
"If things are happening on campus, students want to know about it so they can protect themselves," said Allison Stull, editor of the student newspaper, the Quad. "How can we do that if they're not telling us?"
West Chester is hardly the only school to submit inaccurate data in violation of federal law. Named after Jeanne Ann Clery, a Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in her dorm room by another student in April 1986, the Clery Act requires colleges and universities to count and annually report crimes such as murder, aggravated assault and robbery that occur on or near campus.
However, "only about a third do so in a way fully consistent with federal laws" enacted in 1990, according to a U.S. Justice Department study released last month.
Philadelphia-area schools have been well-represented in the ranks of offenders, accounting for three of at least 15 investigations by the government into reporting irregularities in the last decade. One of the latest is La Salle University, where the federal probe was triggered in 2004 by claims that basketball coaches discouraged a female student from reporting an alleged rape by a player.
The La Salle review isn't finished. But nearly every other targeted school - including the University of Pennsylvania in 1998 and the College of New Jersey in Ewing in 2000 - was found not to be complying with the Clery Act. Although violators can be fined up to $27,500, the more common penalty has been bruising publicity.
Getting caught turned Penn and TCNJ into national exemplars of campus crime reporting. But strained federal resources means that the vast majority of higher-education institutions get minimal scrutiny. Indeed, on the Web site where it posts the Clery numbers, the Education Department warns that it "cannot vouch for [their] accuracy."
Often, the crime statistics found there are so low as to defy common sense.
Consider the region's seven community colleges, two of which are in downtown Philadelphia and Camden. Attended by a total of 78,000 students, the schools submitted Clery figures for 2004 that, when added up, included just one sexual assault, two aggravated assaults, and four robberies.
Community College of Philadelphia, for one, admitted filing incomplete reports. The Clery Act requires schools to make a "good-faith effort" to count crimes that occur on the streets and sidewalks immediately bordering the campus, even if the incidents were handled only by municipal police.
"For the past three years I did not get any data from the [Philadelphia] police - I am told that information is unavailable," Randy Merced, manager of Community College of Philadelphia security, wrote in an e-mail response to The Inquirer.
Merced's counterparts at other Philadelphia colleges said city police readily share crime data for Clery purposes.
Judging from the figures it has been sending to Washington, Drexel University is another anomalous island of relative safety in the inner city.