Campus crime figures don't tell the whole story

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Education reporter
  • January 30, 2009 @ 4:00 PM

For the college student or parent worried about campus safety, a federal database makes it relatively easy to look up crime trends.

However, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story, and finding out which college in Chicago is the safest isn’t an easy task.

Some campuses report similar crimes in different ways, and colleges that do more to address situations like sexual assault can appear to have more crime when, in fact, they may be more safe, experts say.

For the last 20 years, a federal law has required every college and university whose students get federal financial aid to keep track of a wide range of crimes. The Clery Act is named for a Lehigh University student murdered in 1986; afterward, her parents discovered that the school hadn’t released information about other violent crimes on campus.

While the Clery Act is imperfect - for example, it does not require higher education institutions to track student-related crime that occurs off-campus - security experts agree that it’s a useful starting point for parents and students concerned about campus safety.

“The key is to view it as a starting point, that crime does happen on campus and that you need to look into it more in terms of more detailed published reports,” says S. Daniel Carter, the director of public policy at Security on Campus, a watchdog group for the Clery Act.

With little money available for the U.S. Department of Education to audit crime figures colleges submit, any number of things can cloud the accuracy of the statistics, Carter says.

“We frequently see issues that range the gamut from campus police and security officials being pressured not to report, to incidents where there is simply a misunderstanding about what is required,” Carter says.

Burglaries, underage drinking most common

The Daily News reviewed the Clery Act statistics for 2006 and 2007 for all two- and four-year colleges and universities in the city of Chicago.

In some regards, the statistics appear consistent. For example, DePaul, Loyola, Northwestern and Columbia College each reported at least 200 disciplinary actions in 2007 related to alcohol. Few of those were arrests; more often, school administrators may have sanctioned students. But in that same year, the University of Chicago, with a total enrollment similar to Loyola’s, counted just four alcohol-related enforcement actions on campus.

Robert Mason, the spokesman for the University of Chicago Police Department, said the school’s alcohol figures were low because of a strict policy against alcohol on campus. But he stopped short of speculating whether students were finding ways to skirt the rules or simply going off campus to drink.

“As far as arrests for drinking, they have been pretty much zeroed out,” Mason says.

Most of the City Colleges of Chicago, which do not have dormitories for students, did not record any on-campus crimes in 2006 or 2007—somewhat surprising on its face because most other colleges recorded at least a dozen burglaries in those years.

Kennedy-King logged four burglaries and three assaults in 2007, but just one burglary in 2006. Olive-Harvey noted eight drug offenses in 2007 and a similar number a year before. Factoring in crimes that happen on nearby public property—sidewalks, streets and parks, for example—some types of crime jumped at the City Colleges.

But some of the data for the City Colleges appeared inconsistent. Harold Washington College, like many other colleges and universities, posts crime information on its Web site. In 2007, according to the school’s own site, there were 18 batteries and 18 thefts on campus, in addition to 30 robberies and 15 cases of aggravated assault that happened near campus.

But the U.S. Department of Education’s Clery Act database shows only the off-campus crimes – none of which involved students – and lists zeros across all categories of on-campus crime at Harold Washington.

David Rozell, the director of security at Harold Washington, said the statistics are an “administrative matter” and he did not know who compiled the numbers or why there was a discrepancy. Elsa Tullos, the district spokeswoman, did not return a call seeking comment.

Most students feel safe on campus

Students at campuses across the city say they appreciate being made aware of crimes that happen nearby, but few of them turn to the Department of Education’s database.

Loyola University student Tony Catalano says the college makes crime information widely available to students, through updates on bulletin boards across campus and with e-mail alerts when a serious crime occurs.
But the regular crime updates don’t make campus seem like a dangerous place, he says.

“I kind of expect these things to happen, but when I hear about them, I’m just more aware,” Catalano says. “I don’t feel less safe.”

At Roosevelt University’s Loop campus, crime usually isn’t a hot topic.
“We don’t really see much of it,” says Roosevelt senior Michael Perry. “They post crime alerts on little pieces of paper on most of the entrances to the university, and most of those things are incidents that happen five blocks away.”

Getting those updates is helpful because it makes students more vigilant, he says.

“Most of the stuff I’ve seen on those posts (happen) late at night so I think it just makes people more aware about traveling alone at night,” Perry says.
Most DePaul University students are concerned about relatively minor crimes like loitering and pulled fire alarms when the topic comes up, says senior Nicole Jones.

“If anything, people look at our crime blotter (in the campus newspaper) to see who had marijuana in their dorm rooms, and that’s really the extent of it,” Jones says.


Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.