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.
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.
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."