Playing with Statistics on Campus Crime Data

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

A far more common source of complaint is the way the Clery Act classifies campus crimes. Its broad categories do not jibe with those of states such as Pennsylvania, which also require colleges to report crimes. In the case of West Chester, school officials say, incidents got lost in the translation.

Crafted for a college culture, in which crimes often occur by people under the influence of alcohol and date-rape drugs, the Clery Act gathers all sex offenses except statutory rape and incest under a single heading, "forcible sexual offenses."

In their state filings, however, colleges have a choice of two categories for sex crimes: "rape," defined as forcible carnal knowledge of a woman, and "sex offenses," which includes everything else. West Chester had improperly omitted the latter from its Clery reports.

Another common misclassification occurs when student property is stolen from dorm rooms. The Clery Act calls that "burglary" until the thief proves to be a roommate or invited guest. Many schools - including Temple and Kutztown University - have labeled it as "theft," which need not be reported to the feds.

In the case of Kutztown, the Education Department noticed, and university police corrected the error in 2003. Temple police said they made the same switch last year.

"Reporting is slowly getting better," said Bath, of Security On Campus. "Most schools still don't do it right, but more do every year."

For their commitment to full disclosure, institutions such as Penn can appear downright dangerous compared with schools that are less forthcoming. Some become targets of negative media reports, such as an ABC News Primetime show in November that lambasted schools with relatively high crime rates.

College officials are acutely aware that the "perception" of a campus less safe than its competitors can seriously damage a university's "brand," said Rush, Penn's security chief.

Nonetheless, when worried parents and students call, Rush said, "I tell them we give them the full picture, that we believe honesty is the best medicine."

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