Playing with Statistics on Campus Crime Data

Getting a fair picture of campus crime often made difficult by questionable reporting tactics

Penn, its next-door neighbor in West Philadelphia, included in its 2004 report eight sexual assaults, nine aggravated assaults, 65 robberies and 49 burglaries in a student population of 23,300. Drexel, with nearly 18,000 students, counted 20 aggravated assaults but far fewer sexual assaults (1), robberies (2) and burglaries (27).

Bernard Golloti, Drexel's vice president for public safety, said in an interview that criminals are more active in the blocks immediately south and west of his campus, where Penn lies.

But the differences also reflect the two schools' varied takes on the spirit of the Clery Act. Penn now reports all crime that occurs in its security force's patrol area, extending a couple of blocks beyond the official campus lines - well more than the law demands. Temple University does likewise.

"We like to give students and parents as much information as possible," said Maureen Rush, Penn's vice president for public safety. "A robbery a block off campus is still of interest to the campus community."

Drexel hews to far tighter reporting boundaries. In campus police logs from 2004, The Inquirer found eight robberies of at least 10 students within two blocks of the campus. None turned up in the Clery filings.

In one of them, a Drexel student was accosted by an assailant at 30th and Market Streets, just outside the school's mandatory reporting area. He was chased a block into the Clery zone, beaten and robbed of $5.

Asked about that attack, plus another in the log that appeared to have happened on a sidewalk along the campus, Golloti said he would assign an investigator.

Last week, both incidents were added to Drexel's 2004 tally of robberies and filed to Washington.

West Chester's review led to the relabeling of nearly 60 crimes.

"The numbers were incorrect," said university spokesman Stephen Bell, "so we changed them."

However, even the newly revised figures for 2004 may be wrong, for they do not include crimes that occurred on the streets and sidewalks rimming the campus. As in the case of PCC, West Chester University security officials said they relied on the borough police to supply data for that year, but received last year's figures instead.

While acknowledging that "we've misclassified numbers, and that's an opportunity for us to have a black eye," West Chester University Police Lt. Michael D. Vining defended his department's record.

"When you look at the way security is provided on campus, the numbers are important," he said. "But it's not just in the numbers."

Student leaders generally agreed that campus police do a good job. Many expressed shock, nonetheless, at learning the crime statistics had been so wrong.

"I never would expect them to lie to me about something like that," said Louisa Correal, a junior and executive director of the student-run Residence Hall Association. "It damages the trust I have in the school."

At the university Women's Center, which counsels sexual-assault victims, director Robin Garrett said the campus police would not have knowingly made incorrect reports.

"It isn't right that this happened and obviously there was laxity, if nothing else," she said, but added that she doubted "it was anything but a mistake."

Among campus-safety watchdogs, though, skepticism over "mistakes" runs high. Image-sensitive schools, they contend, aren't eager to be accurate.

"Acknowledging that crime happens in the ivory tower is really tough for them," said Catherine Bath, executive director of Security on Campus, a King of Prussia advocacy group founded by the parents of Jeanne Ann Clery.

"Really low numbers" are "a red flag," Bath said. "When you see zero or one sexual assaults for a school of 12,000, that school has what we call 'a culture of silence.' "

Colleges that have gotten it wrong, and gotten caught, frequently blame their errors on the Clery Act's complex reporting rules. They fill a 216-page Education Department manual and are confusing enough to have spawned a cottage industry of compliance consultants.

Take, for instance, a school bordered by a park. Must crimes that occur there be reported? The guidebook answers: No, if the park is gated; yes, if it is not gated; and sometimes, if it is occasionally gated.