College Crime Rates Not What They Seem

Almost twenty years ago a 19-year-old freshman at Lehigh University named Jeanne Clery went to sleep in her seemingly safe, on-campus residential hall. Before the sun came up, she was dead.

Because a door was unnecessarily propped open, a student whom she didn’t know made his way through the door and into her bedroom, where she was suddenly awoken to be brutally raped and murdered.

Sure, this could happen anywhere, to anyone. However, if Clery and her parents had known that 38 violent crimes had been committed on campus in the preceding three years, she and everyone else in that hall probably would have been more vigilant that night. That’s assuming they still chose to go to Lehigh at all.

Because of this incident, the Clery Act was enacted in 1990, originally known as the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990. Essentially, it requires all institutions that accept federal financial aide to track and disclose all crime statistics each year. On the whole, the aim is to encourage institutions to promote security; if they are forced to disclose a high crime rate on their campus, nobody’s going to want to enroll.

Good idea, huh? Sure. But that’s where the good part ends – as an idea. If you think that you don’t have to be concerned about crime, it better be for some other reason than your school’s supposed low crime rate. In short, the statistics you see when you are browsing a school’s website are one thing, but what actually occurs may be something entirely different.

Take two schools in two disparate locations: Rutgers-Camden (located in what was recently dubbed ‘the country’s most dangerous city’), and the ivory-tower, ivy-league Princeton University, nestled in one of the wealthiest communities in New Jersey.

Ask a random person which school has the lower crime rate, and they probably won’t hesitate. Sure, it seems like a no-brainer, but if you checked the schools’ crime rates, you’d be surprised to learn that Princeton’s $35,000-a-year price tag apparently does not include security.

That is, Princeton’s aggravated assault rate in 2004 was nearly double that of Rutgers’. And if that’s not enough, its rate of forcible sex offenses was nearly triple what it was at Rutgers-the-most-dangerous-city-in-the-country-Camden!

Must be a typo, right? Not quite, but the disparity is easily accountable. What the colleges tell you are their crime rates. What they don’t tell you is that they’re their crime rates.

That is, although there are rules on how reporting must be done, many colleges fail to conform to these rules. The errors, colleges claim, are due in large part to the confusing 216-page manual published by the U.S. Department of Education

For example, the manual classifies burglary as the unlawful entry of a structure to
commit a felony or a theft. However, the word unlawful is open for interpretation. Is it unlawful for a student to enter a residence hall they don’t live in if the door is propped open? Is it unlawful if a student lets another student in unwittingly? If not, a burglary can be classified as a theft, which is a much less serious offense.

Because these vague definitions abound in the 216-page tome, schools end up misclassifying crimes, and thus, misleading students.

Look at West Chester University. In 2003 and 2004, they reported only one forcible sex offense and two burglaries. However, after the DOE made them revise their figures, that lone sex offense turned into 14, and the two burglaries, 45!

My goal here is not to keep you up at night, but only to clue you in to the possibility that you may not be as snug and secure as your school is leading you to believe.

That doesn’t mean you need to sleep with your eyes open, but it’s probably not a good idea to sleep with your door open. My advice: Tuck mace in your purse or pack some brass knuckles, but unless you’re on the baseball team, you don’t have to heft a bat around campus. Check the stats and check the reports, but even if they’re low, remember to check your back just in case.

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