Crime on campus: What colleges won’t tell you

Monday, August 23, 1999

In the next few weeks, 10.4 million students will be settling in on the nation’s college and university campuses. They look forward to learning, maturing, perhaps partying a little. Some will be more prepared than others for this academic adventure, but very few will be prepared for the amount and nature of crime they will encounter on those campuses.

They won’t be prepared because college officials and policies make it difficult, if not impossible, to find out about crime on campus and how it’s handled.

For years, colleges have routinely denied students, the public and the press access to information about campus crime and disciplinary actions. In addition, procedures originally developed to handle cases involving academic cheating and related matters has evolved into a full-blown judicial system that also deals with violent crimes such as rape, robbery, assault, weapons possession and drug-dealing.

Campus police operate independently of the regular police and seldom have the resources or expertise to investigate violent crimes fully. The campus courts don’t have anything to do with the regular courts, either. They operate in secret, scorn due process, flout accountability, and dispense a peculiar sort of justice where the harshest penalty is expulsion no matter what the crime.

This system seldom serves the victims of crime, those accused of crime, the campus community, prospective students, alumni, or the larger community that pays the bills, directly or indirectly. So the question becomes: Who or what does it serve?

Last week, the Student Press Law Center reported the results of its audit of just how forthcoming college officials are about crime on campus. Staff members at the center recently visited six colleges, public and private, in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. They went to campus police departments and judicial affairs offices in search of crime statistics, police logs and the outcomes of student disciplinary proceedings — all clearly releasable information under current law.

The center reported that although some of the colleges visited were more helpful than others, compliance was inconsistent at best. Just finding the proper office and people to ask was difficult. Officials in some cases demanded to know who wanted to know and for what purpose the information was wanted. And when records were provided, they often were less than helpful in determining the full story of criminal incidents and disciplinary actions taken against those who committed them.

Only in recent years have lawsuits and legislation begun to hold colleges and universities to a higher standard of access and accountability when it comes to crime on campus. But those advances more often than not have been two steps forward, then one step back as college administrators lobby against proposed legislation, try to loosen the requirements when the regulations are written, and ignore or misinterpret the law when it’s implemented.

An assortment of individuals and organizations have chipped away at college secrecy policies. One of the more significant events was a federal court lawsuit filed by Traci Bauer, editor of the student newspaper at Southwest Missouri State University; in 1991, the court ruled decisively in her case that campus crime reports must be open to the public and press.

Because of the work of individuals like Bauer and groups like the Student Press Law Center, the Society of Professional Journalists, Security on Campus and the Campus Courts Task Force, access to campus crime reports was secured. Then the battle shifted to legislation requiring colleges and universities to report meaningful crime statistics. After favorable legislation was achieved there, efforts were directed toward opening up campus disciplinary records.

The most recent federal legislation is the Higher Education Act of 1998. It requires colleges and universities to maintain for public inspection logs
that note crimes within two days of their reporting. It requires them to publish information about crimes in off-campus areas frequented by students. It requires more-extensive reporting of hate crimes, arson and homicide. And it allows colleges and universities to release the final results of
disciplinary proceedings against students accused of crimes.

But lobbyists and lawyers for the college administrators managed to get important elements of the law as passed by Congress written out or watered
down in the drafting of the implementing regulations.

For example, the regulations as drafted “will almost certainly impede Congress’s intent to make key student disciplinary records publicly available,” writes Bruce Brown, counsel for the Society of Professional Journalists. In a letter filed as part of the public-comment process, Brown urged Education Department officials to restore to the draft of the rules the term “nonforcible sex offenses” that Congress had expressly written into the law so that information on date rapes would be disclosed.

Further, Brown notes that the draft creates huge loopholes by not meaningfully defining categories to be reported. Without those broad definitions, said Brown, “university officials could believe that they are restricted by the law to releasing no more than a one-sentence record stating that ‘John Doe was suspended for one semester for disorderly behavior.’ “

And so it goes.

Over the years, college officials have developed elaborate rationales for their reluctance to provide even basic information about crime on campus. They say they want to protect student privacy, but don’t explain why privacy should trump safety. They say that it costs too much to maintain and keep reports, but don’t mention the millions they spend on fighting disclosure requirements. They say their hands are tied by the law, but don’t mention the fact that it was a law they put in place.

Such arguments reflect an attitude among some college administrators that seems to be less about preventing crime than protecting reputations, less about dispensing justice than guarding secrets, less about protecting the safety of innocent students than the privacy of guilty ones.

Until that attitude changes, too many of those millions of college students across the land will have to learn about campus crime the hard way.

Paul McMasters can be contacted at