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Hot on Campus | October 31, 2012

Campus safety evaluations


Although the government collects crime statistics for almost all schools, officials warn the numbers don't tell the whole story

©iStockPhoto/Keith Reicher

In 2009, a 15-year-old boy perpetrated a crime spree at Azusa Pacific University that made the 100-acre California campus look like a very dangerous place to go to school. Pedaling fast down the streets and sidewalks, the boy snuck up behind young women, slapped them on the behind and rode off.

When the women contacted campus security officials to file a complaint, the school had to classify the crime as a forcible sexual offense, according to the federal guidelines governing the Clery Report, a national database of campus crime. Between 2008 and 2010, Azusa reported 11 incidents of forcible sexual offenses on campus, more than any other school affiliated with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).

The Clery Report is supposed to give parents and students an accurate picture of the relative safety or danger of every campus in the country. All schools that receive federal Title IX funding must report crime statistics. But the report doesn't tell the whole story, and people who want to know how safe a prospective school is must do a little more digging, officials say.

Azusa representatives would not release details about all of the offenses listed on their Clery Report. As a private institution, the school is not bound by the same disclosure requirements as public schools. But about half of the events classified as forcible sexual offenses involved the teenage cyclist, whom police eventually apprehended, said Willie Hamlett, associate vice president of Student Life and chief judicial officer.

Hamlett said he did not want to minimize what happened but noted the statistics should differentiate between rape and what happened with the cyclist. Categorizing the incidents by Clery standards as a "forced sexual offense" was the school's only option, Hamlett said.

The lack of specificity provided in the Clery Report can leave more questions than answers. For example, a string of 12 arsons in 2008 and 2009 at Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss., stands out. But none of the fires consumed any structures, although they did leave their mark on campus. Director of Public Safety Stephen McCraney said fires set in dormitory trash cans, bathrooms and one basement caused $157,000 in damage but no injuries. School officials questioned suspects, but no one has been arrested in the case.

Crime reporting

The US Congress passed the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990 (renamed The Clery Act in 1998) to inform students and their families about crime on and around university and college campuses. Due to its lack of detail, the report should only be used as a starting point of inquiry about campus safety, officials say. Communicating with school administrators and the municipal or county law enforcement agencies that partner with them proves the best source of crime information and, ultimately, prevention.

Campus officials also encourage parents and prospective students reviewing crime statistics to remember that students can be their own worst enemy when it comes to being the victim of a crime. Whether due to naiveté, trust, or outright reckless behavior, personal safety and the security of belongings are not at the forefront of students' minds, especially in a place they think is safe, Hamlett said: "I think you let your guard down when you go to a Christian campus. You're going to believe people aren't going to take your stuff."

The Clery Report shows CCCU-affiliated schools are not immune to theft, burglary, assault, and sexual offenses. APU reported 49 burglaries in 2008. Hamlett said the addition of part-time security officers resulted in a reduction of thefts from 16 in 2009 to six in 2010. But that number increased to 17 in 2011.

Between 2008 and 2010, 24 of the 118 CCCU-affiliated campuses reported at least one forced sexual offense, with APU citing the highest rate--six in 2009. Reporting two incidents in one of those three years were King College in Bristol, Tenn.; Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill.; Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Mich.; University of Mary Hardin Baylor in Belton, Texas; and Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Penn.

Eighteen schools reported a combined total of 44 aggravated assaults and 28 robberies during the same 3-year time frame. Institutions citing the highest number of burglaries between 2008 and 2010 were Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., with 84; Bluffton University in Bluffton, Ohio, with 72; APU, with 49; Mississippi College, with 29; and Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., with 27.

Grove City College in Grove City, Penn. reported 24 burglaries in 2010 but the installation of additional security cameras cut that number by more than half in 2011, according to Randy Cole, GCC assistant director of marketing and communications.

Grove City's rejection of all federal funding exempts the school from Clery reporting requirements. But, like all schools, GCC must present annual campus crime statistics to the state and federal Uniform Crime Report. In its 2009-2011 Campus Safety report, officials cited one forced sexual assault on campus. Cole said he could not elaborate on the incident due to school policy.

Evaluating the danger

Particularly in cases of burglary and robbery, officials say students can contribute to the circumstances that lead them to become victims of crimes. Students' carelessness often dumbfounds Officer Darrell Halstead, the crime prevention specialist at the University of Texas Police Department: "Crime Prevention Tip: It is amazing to consider what the IQ levels are of the average UT student. It is equally amazing to consider the average UT student thinks that their property will not be stolen when they leave it unsecured and unattended," he noted in a recent Crime Watch report, an email UTPD sends to subscribers several times a week.

In his Crime Watch report, Halstead lists all activity investigated by UTPD, from bomb threats to students setting fire to ant mounds. The theft of bikes and electronics, mostly phones, dominates the listing. Due to a profitable resale market for the bikes, even those secured with locks get stolen. But phones left unattended present a crime of convenience.

The use and abuse of alcohol on secular and Christian campuses also exacerbates crime. Alcohol plays a leading role in the number of sexual assaults among co-eds. Taking advantage of safety programs designed to familiarize students with the relationship between alcohol consumption and sexual activity can reduce the incidents of sexual assault and other alcohol related offenses, safety experts say.

But while about 97 percent of incoming freshman attend one of many UT summer orientations, only about one percent attend the UTPD safety classes, Halstead said. A primer on personal safety just isn't a priority. Halstead hopes to make safety classes a mandatory part of freshman orientation.

Determining the relative safety of a campus is, ultimately, up to the students and their families, said Ryan Holmes, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration. The Clery Report doesn't capture everything a family would want to know, said Holmes, whose organization trains campus personnel in best practices and legal compliance regarding student conduct and conflict resolution.

Digging for incident details is problematic, especially at private institutions where those making the inquiries are at the schools' mercy for full disclosure. But, in an effort to retain and attract students, Holmes said most institutions, private and public, are forthcoming with detailed security information for students and parents. All they need to do is ask.