When Jeanne Clery was raped and murdered in her Lehigh University dorm room in 1986, most students did not know about the 38 violent crimes that had occurred at the school in the three years leading up to her death.
The incident brought sweeping legislation regarding how colleges and universities report crime statistics and distribute warning notices. But now, more than 20 years after the Clery Act was passed, crime reporting is still a nuanced, discrepancy-filled practice.
Though campus crime reporting methods are federally regulated, crime statistics vary with an institution’s policies, state codes and victim services – creating an uneven picture of nationwide campus crime.
“You’re going to have some apples to oranges comparisons,” said University Police Department Chief Dolores Stafford, referring to differing crime reporting policies between states.
She added, “But the truth of the matter is, I don’t think that looking at crime statistics tells the whole story about whether a campus is safe or not.”
At GW, any crime that occurs on University-owned property – including Townhouse Row, the Starbucks in Gelman Library and the Shops at 2000 Penn – is classified as on-campus crime, according to UPD policy.
An event occurring on the street within campus boundaries is classified as public property on campus – a separate designation from on or off-campus. A crime reported in a building like The Statesman apartment building – located on campus but not owned by the University – is not reported in Clery Act statistics, though Stafford said she would include such information the UPD crime log as an off-campus incident.
UPD takes crime statistics reporting very seriously, Stafford said. The department employs a full-time staff member to ensure all reports are in compliance with the Clery Act, which requires that any institution of higher education participating in the federal financial aid program report crime statistics, distribute crime alerts and maintain a public crime log. The University also employs a victim’s services coordinator to help students decide whether to come forward to report a crime.
The added effort, however, yields higher numbers of reported crimes, which could make the school look dangerous to prospective students.
“You can’t just compare the statistics. If the campus is aggressive in encouraging students to report crimes, they’re going to have higher numbers,” Stafford said. “The converse of that is, if the campus isn’t doing anything to encourage students to come forward, they’re not likely to report as many crimes, but doesn’t necessarily mean that campus is safer.”
Beyond creating transparency in on-campus crime, Stafford said she hopes her department’s adherence to the Clery Act will decrease the number of crimes that comprise the annual statistics.
“If a student reads the crime log and made some change to their behavior, like maybe they decided not to walk alone at night and decided to use 4-RIDE because of what they read, would that be worth the money that we put into it? If you can prove that proposition, then yes,” she said.
But inconsistencies between schools’ methods of reporting, faulty automated report-writing computer programs and contradictions between state codes make it nearly impossible to judge campus safety based on statistics. All campus security authorities, which include faculty and housing staff, are required by the law to report any incident, whether the victim reports it or not. Stafford said it is impossible to know how many cooperate.
“You can’t ensure campus authorities report crimes,” she said. “You tell them they’re required to by law, and you can ask them for the information, but you can’t ensure it.”
In addition, student apathy discounts UPD’s efforts in crime prevention. Stafford said when the University used to print crime statistics in booklets, many of them ended up in the trash. UPD has since ceased printing massive quantities of the booklets, instead making them available by request and online.
“In the end, I can say that I saw a lot of freshmen throw this book away,” she said. “Didn’t mean a couple of them didn’t take it back to their room. And if they did, that makes it worth it.”