Colleges’ unreliable crime statistics

Part 2 of a series on campus sexual assault

By Dennis Barbosa

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Recent research shows many colleges underreport sexual assaults on campus even after paying heavy fines. 

A new study published by the American Psychological Association examined 31 universities and colleges for crime reports during audits by the U.S. Department of Education for federal law compliance. 

“The study shows that many universities continue to view rape and sexual assault as a public relations issue rather than a safety issue,” said researcher Corey Rayburn Yung, in a prepared statement. “They don’t want to be seen as a school with really high sexual assault numbers, and they don’t want to go out of their way to report that information to students or the media.” 

In analyzing the audits, Yung discovered the reported numbers of sexual assaults increased 44 percent on average from previously reported levels. 

Under federal law, universities and colleges can face fines of more than $35,000 per violation. Yung said the fines should be increased because they don’t discourage undercounting of sexual assaults.

The Clery Act requires colleges and universities participating in federal financial aid programs to keep and distribute campus crime statistics and security information. After audits, the number of sexual assaults in succeeding years dropped to their original levels. This supported the study’s hypothesis that “the ordinary practice of universities is to undercount incidents of sexual assault” and report more accurately while under investigation. 

Colleges, victims underreport 

The underreporting of crime by colleges, coupled with the underreporting of sexual assault by victims, allows thousands of crimes to go unreported. According to the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, each year about 14 percent of college women are sexually assaulted and 3 percent forcibly raped, with 12 percent of the victims reporting to police (or 5 percent, according to an earlier study). 

The study differentiates between forcible rape and incapacitated rape, which involves drugs and alcohol. The 14 percent figure does not include attempted sexual assaults. 

A conservative estimate for IUPUI would put forcible rapes at 24 per year. IUPUI reported 12 forcible sex offenses and zero “nonforcible” sex offenses for 2011 to 2013. (From 2004 to 2014, average enrollment at IUPUI was about 29,000, with an average female population of 16,000.) Federal law defines “nonforcible” sex offense as statutory rape or incest. 

College crime reports are available on the U.S. Department of Education website, but there is a caveat: “The crime data reported by the institutions have not been subjected to independent verification by the U.S. Department of Education. Therefore, the department cannot vouch for the accuracy of the data reported here.” 

However, these statistical inaccuracies are not entirely because of college underreporting. Victims tend not to report sexual assault because they don’t always know if what happened was a crime. 

More than half of college women forcibly raped said they did not report because they lacked proof, feared retaliation or did not want their families to find out, according to a 2007 Medical University of South Carolina study. And even more victims of incapacitated rape said they didn’t know if a crime had been committed or if the incident was serious enough. 

Lack of verification for crime statistics 

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education fined Delaware State University $55,000 for reporting inaccurate crime statistics and lacking documents to support its crime data for 2004 to 2007. 

Likewise, IUPUI may have published some statistical inaccuracies. 

The IUPUI Police Department published a summary of crime statistics dating back to 1973 on its website, along with a PDF of its latest annual safety report detailing crime statistics for 2011 to 2013.

 Summary statistics for 2011 to 2013 forcible sex offenses do not match the annual safety report. Forcible sex offense refers to rape, sodomy, sexual assault with an object, and fondling.

 IUPUI officer David Briggs said the website just needed to be updated. For example, at the bottom of the webpage an email is listed for Capt. Bob True. Briggs said that information is not accurate. True is now chief of police.

 When asked if the rest of the data in the summary were accurate, Briggs said, “Probably.”

 Most states don’t independently verify college crime statistics, and the U.S. Department of Education does not conduct regular audits. Out of 63 reviews, the department found 50 colleges had problems with their crime statistics.

 No alerts for near-campus crime

 Many colleges have failed to meet the most basic requirements of federal law for campus crime reporting.

 Other colleges like IUPUI do not issue alerts for crimes near campus, which is legal. But at a college where less than 8 percent of students live on campus, does it make sense not to?

 From 2011 to 2013, five forcible sex offenses, 11 robberies, 22 aggravated assaults, 17 burglaries and 46 motor vehicle thefts occurred on “noncampus” or “public property,” according to IUPUI’s annual safety report.

 “Noncampus” is defined as “certain noncampus buildings or property owned or controlled by the university,” and “public property” means “property on or immediately adjacent to the campus.”

 In 2011, two forcible sex offenses occurred, according to the report: one on Eskenazi Health property and the other at Park Place at City Center apartments.

 The following year another occurred at Park Place, with an arrest for battery. And in 2013, two forcible sex offenses were reported, one at Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center and the other in the 1300 block of West Michigan Street.

 “Because some incidents occur outside of IUPD’s territorial jurisdiction, it’s critical that IUPD-Indianapolis work with the investigating agency to ensure their investigation is not compromised,” said IUPUI spokeswoman Margie Smith-Simmons in a prepared statement. “IUPD-Indianapolis is currently working with a number of agencies to develop a process by which to notify students of off-campus crime.”

 Smith-Simmons said she could not offer any details for off-campus crime notifications because plans are still in early development.

 FERPA confusion

 Several colleges in Indiana do not interpret the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act correctly.

 FERPA protects the privacy of student educational records but often is cited as a reason for not releasing non-educational disciplinary records.

 In early February, Indiana State University acknowledged receipt of The Campus Citizen’s open records request. Indiana State’s general counsel said in an email that much of the information was protected by FERPA, but an official response would be issued after reviewing the request and “privacy-related issues.”

 Thus far, only Vincennes University has agreed to grant The Campus Citizen’s request for disciplinary records for violent crimes and nonforcible sex offenses, via open records laws. The university anticipated releasing a list of names, violations and disciplinary results for more than 100 incidents.

 The Campus Citizen submitted identical requests to Ball State, Indiana State, Purdue and Indiana universities, as well as the University of Southern Indiana. Purdue and IU may take longer to reply because they also are processing records requests for their regional campuses. All campuses acknowledged receipt of the open records requests in early February.

 When asked for comment on Part 1* of this series, Amber Monroe, director of the IU Office of Student Ethics, declined and said in an email that FERPA prohibited her response to such inquiries.

 In 1998, Congress amended FERPA so colleges and universities no longer could use it as an excuse to withhold information regarding the final results of a student’s disciplinary hearing for violent crimes and nonforcible sex offenses.

 “When it comes to sexual assault and rape, the norm for universities and colleges is to downplay the situation and the numbers,” researcher Yung said in a prepared statement. “The result is students at many universities continue to be attacked and victimized, and punishment isn’t meted out to the rapists and sexual assaulters.”

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 *Part 1 included the results of a disciplinary hearing for a male student at Indiana University accused of forcibly groping a female freshman. The victim provided The Campus Citizen with a copy of the no-contact order issued against the accused. The documents provided the date of the complaint, university punishments and the accused’s full name, which The Campus Citizen chose not to publish because the person was not convicted of a crime.