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Decline in Clery Act crime stats may be misleading

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Under the Clery Act, nearly all colleges and universities in the country are required to publish an annual study detailing reports of on-campus crime during the previous year. Swarthmore’s 2015 report, released on October 1, paints a picture of crime that is less clear than it appears, particularly with regards to sexual misconduct offenses.

The report, which sheds light on on-campus activity during the 2014 calendar year, demonstrates across-the-board declines in criminal reports last year, from robbery and assault to larceny and drug law violations. Among other categories, reported burglaries went down 58% (from 12 to five), and alcohol-related arrests dropped nearly 60%.

The most startling numbers are found in the sex offenses category, and in the section on Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) crimes. Reports of sex offenses — categorized as non-statutory and statutory rape, fondling, and incest — fell from 89 in 2013 to just 27 in 2014. VAWA, reported under a separate category, oversees a broad range of illegal acts that are harmful to women, such as domestic and dating violence and stalking. These crimes were similarly non-existent, declining from 15 to just one in the last year.

According to Title IX Coordinator Kaaren Williamsen, there are several explanations for the significant fluctuations, all important in shaping the story of campus safety. The key point for her is that the Clery Act study only documents reports of illegality made by students and others to Campus Safety Authorities (CSAs). These reports are often anonymous, failing to identify victims or perpetrators. In such cases, Public Safety and other campus departments are unable to do anything. Further, this particular study only pertains to criminal activity — specific accusations of rape, stalking, and other illegal acts.

“There are many things that aren’t considered crimes but still go against our sexual abuse and harassment policy,” Williamsen said. The result is that, while crime appears to be less pervasive, there may be many more reports of abuse or unsafe experiences that, while highly relevant to many support groups around campus, are not included in the Clery Act report.

“Clery numbers don’t tell the whole story,” she noted.

The numbers, then, only represent the data on illegal offense accusations. These, Williamsen noted, commonly change year to year based on public knowledge and awareness of the prevalent issues. For example, publicity surrounding sexual assault increased dramatically around 2013, especially due to high-profile cases that received significant attention on campus.

Resulting policy changes, including creating a full-time Title IX Coordinator position, helped cause a massive uptick in reports to campus safety of sex offenses.

“As students have felt more empowered to speak up, as systems for reporting have become clearer, and as additional trained personnel have been hired, it makes sense that students would feel freer to report incidents of all types,” said Michael Hill, director of public safety.

Because all CSAs — not just Public Safety, but also Residential Assistants, sports team coaches, and others — are required to submit a report on any information they hear, the number of reports is likely to rise when there is more attention to and discussion of relevant offenses.

Where there were 12 such reports in 2012, the number shot up to 89 in 2013, before sliding back again in 2014 to 27.

“Students are encouraging one another to report, just as we are encouraging them to do so,” Hill said.

Williamsen believes, however, that the Clery Act’s statistical requirements, while useful in certain ways, fail to accurately describe the state of safety and security on each campus. In her eyes, a major issue is that the policies for compiling and publishing data are the same for all schools across the nation, “regardless of size — like Penn State versus Swarthmore — or community college versus residential,” Williamsen noted. “These are huge differences.”

The federal guidelines for what should be included in the report are ambiguous and can change year to year, causing major variation from report to report. Compounding the problem, schools must also follow state-specific reporting laws, which vary significantly, and add another layer of bureaucratic morass to work through.

Large discrepancies in reporting from year to year are actually common in Clery Act reporting across the nation, both in terms of one school’s numbers over multiple years and in comparisons of multiple schools. Haverford’s 2015 study noted seven sex offense reports in 2014, and four the year before — far below Swarthmore’s numbers. Bryn Mawr had six official reports of on-campus sex offenses that year, despite being a school of comparable student population to Swarthmore. Princeton, a much larger school in a different state, noted 13 sexual offense reports on its main campus last year. At the University of Michigan — a school exponentially larger than Swarthmore — the tally was 25.

Despite the annual report’s lack of clarity, Williamsen said the school is more interested in and devoted to tailoring general safety and reporting procedures that fit the college’s needs, rather than focusing on the requirements of the Clery Act.

“We spend a lot of time working with this stuff,” she said. “It’s our job to make sense of all the federal and state laws, and not just to make blanket policies, but to make them palatable to our campus.”

One policy that seems to be having tangible effects is the amnesty policy for alcohol-related incidents, enacted at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. The 2014 calendar year totaled 12 alcohol-related arrests, compared to 29 in 2013. The number of referrals for liquor violations did not change in those two years. On the other hand, drinking-related referrals for incidents in student living spaces nearly doubled last year. While students are still getting into some trouble for their drinking, they are much less likely to be arrested as a result of the revised policy.

For Hill, keeping the campus safe is a never-ending process of revision and review.

“What does not change are our efforts to continually revise and improve our education and prevention efforts,” he said.

 

3 Comments

  1. Did anyone notice the hilarious number of car thefts on campus from the past year? Three cars were stolen from campus…

  2. “The numbers, then, only represent the data on illegal offense accusations. These, Williamsen noted, commonly change year to year based on public knowledge and awareness of the prevalent issues. For example, publicity surrounding sexual assault increased dramatically around 2013, especially due to high-profile cases that received significant attention on campus.”

    Did awareness of sexual assault issues simply disappear after one year?

  3. I think the College needs to present long term trend data and help us understand what’s going on here. As mentioned, one year doesn’t tell the true story. In fact, someone should present these data and compare them with peer institutions and other schools that recently had Title IX cases brought against them. This admin double speak doesn’t add up to me. But then again, I’m also not a math major.

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