School officials say new federal rules on disclosing campus crime may lead to confusion.
Where does a college campus end and the rest of the world begin?
Does the campus include the fast-food restaurant or the coffee shop where students hang out, or is it just the classroom buildings, offices and grounds officially owned by the school? How far away can you go from college-owned property before you can reasonably say you are no longer "close" to campus?
Those are the kinds of questions security officials at colleges and universities are asking themselves as they try to address new disclosure provisions in the federal law covering campus crime statistics.
A 1998 amendment to the Campus Security Act, which has been renamed the "Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act," has broadened the reporting requirement for crimes committed near college and university campuses.
In addition to compiling and reporting crime statistics for incidents on property owned or controlled by a school, the law requires schools to collect data about crimes committed in areas "reasonably contiguous" to the campus.
"There has been some confusion over what should be included," says Michael Webster, director of campus safety at Western Maryland College in Westminster, Md. "Wherever you draw a line, sooner or later there's going to be an extreme example of a crime that occurs on the other side of the line."
TRAGEDY SPURS REFORMS In 1986, Jeanne Clery, a student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., was killed in her residence-hall room. Subsequently, her parents learned that the crime rate at Lehigh was higher than they had realized. The next year, the Clerys founded Security on Campus, a non-profit organization that has worked to enact laws requiring colleges and universities to disclose their crime statistics.
In 1990, Congress passed the Campus Security Act. It requires colleges and universities that receive Title IV funding to disclose campus crime statistics and provide students with information about the school's safety policies.
Those pushing colleges to disclose campus statistics felt the law wasn't strong enough. In reporting their data, some schools omitted incidents that occurred on property, such as public sidewalks, that technically was not school property.
"These schools need to be more proficient in addressing things that are not pleasant," says Myra Kodner, a program coordinator with Security on Campus. "Just because there are incidents of crime on a campus doesn't mean the college sanctioned them."
FEWER LOOPHOLES, MORE CONFUSION The 1998 amendments to the Campus Security Act added more categories of crime statistics that schools must disclose. Arson and manslaughter have been added to the list of offenses, which already included murder, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor-vehicle theft.
Colleges and universities also must begin to maintain a daily log of criminal incidents and make it available for public inspection. Schools could withhold information from the log if disclosing it would jeopardize an investigation.
But the change that has raised the concerns of security officers is the one mandating that schools include statistics for crimes that occur near campus. Security officials say that, in general, the push for disclosure benefits students and the colleges and universities.
"Anything that contributes to a student's awareness of crime and security measures on campus is a good thing," says Webster, who chairs the government relations committee for the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. "The intent of the law is something we all support. The problems are with the collection of data."
Those problems could be costly to institutions that don't report their data correctly. The Department of Education has the authority to fine schools that aren't disclosing information correctly (see sidebar on p. 34d).
At many colleges and universities, especially in an urban setting, there is not a clear delineation between the campus and the surrounding neighborhood. Many of the crimes that schools are required to disclose fall outside the jurisdiction of campus security officials.
Webster says some schools may find it difficult to collect the relevant statistics from their municipal police department. In some cases, he says, schools are including statistics from the entire city to make sure they include the incidents the law requires.
"They're not really presenting a true picture of crime immediately affecting the campus," says Webster.
Webster says he realizes that under the old disclosure guidelines, schools could be accused of using technicalities to avoid reporting embarrassing incidents. But he says those fears were overstated.
"I don't think that the vast majority of schools that take security seriously are going to have trouble, by and large," says Webster.
Kodner says that Security on Campus and other disclosure advocates support the changes, and believe they will help students and their families have a more accurate picture of the campus environment. In the future, Kodner says that picture could become even more complete by including data relating to deaths of undetermined causes, student suicide and drug treatment.
READ IT ON THE WEB A change in the law that security officials approve of without reservations is the provision that allows schools to disseminate their statistics by posting them on the World Wide Web. That will allow students to find the information when they want it and will save schools the expense of printing information that many students ignored.
"In a lot of cases, those brochures just ended up in the recycling bin," says Webster.
Mount St. Clare College in Clinton, Iowa, has become the first college or university fined by the federal government for failing to comply with crime reporting requirements.
The U.S. Department of Education levied a $25,000 penalty on the college for not adequately disclosing campus crime statistics as required by the Campus Security Act. The department compared crime statistics submitted by the college with reports available from police agencies and other sources.
In a letter to Mount St. Clare, federal officials contended that the college "failed to properly gather/coordinate/report the required crime statistics from all pertinent sources."
The department found that the lack of a formal process to acquire crime statistics from the Clinton Police Department "prevents Mount St. Clare from ensuring it is including all crime statistics in its annual campus security report, including incidents reported to police of which Mount St. Clare officials may be unaware."
The college disputes the department's finding and is appealing the fine, says Effie Hall, the school's director of college relations.
Mount St. Clare contends that the college did not intentionally violate the law and that whatever omissions occurred were because parts of the law are ambiguous and subject to differing interpretations. Hall also argues that other schools accused of comparable violations received reprimands, not a $25,000 fine.
By levying the fine, the government has shown colleges and universities that it is serious about using its authority to enforce the provisions of the law.
"You can't discount the fact that the Department of Education is using its authority to issue financial sanctions," says Myra Kodner, a program coordinator with Security on Campus, a group that advocates efforts to make colleges and universities safer.