Getting campus-crime records tough assignment

Friday, August 27, 1999

Compared to all the tough assignments that college students face, finding information about campus-safety records should be easy.

But even though federal legislation requires that a broad range of materials be accessible, certain information about campus safety can be difficult or impossible to obtain, according to a new report by the Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center.

“If a reporter well-versed in the requirements of state and federal law has as much trouble getting access to basic crime information as we did, our guess is that the average student seeking basic crime reports often walks away with nothing — out of frustration, if not from an outright denial,” the SPLC report said.

Free-press advocates say universities may be reluctant to disclose crime statistics because such information may make their campuses look dangerous.

“I do believe that the reason they (schools) don't routinely give this information is because they're more interested in protecting their school's image than in school safety,” SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman said.

In order to determine how accessible campus crime information is, reporters for the SPLC went to six universities and asked for three kinds of information: campus crime statistics, police logs and the outcomes of student disciplinary proceedings.

The SPLC surveyed George Washington University, Georgetown University, Howard University and Marymount University (all private schools), and George Mason University and the University of Maryland, both public schools. All six are located in the Washington, D.C., area.

Most schools gave the reporters copies of campus crime statistics without much hassle. All reporters were eventually able to access the police logs, although some had to wait several hours or go to different locations. A few reporters had to support their requests by citing federal law such as the Campus Security Act, which requires such information be available to the public.

“I felt so intimidated and uncomfortable that I thought I was going to cry or flee,” SPLC reporter Sara Rose wrote of her requests for security information at Howard University.

Only the University of Maryland released information about student disciplinary proceedings. In that case, the reporter obtained a very short record after more than a month of phone calls and written requests.

When asked for information, many receptionists seemed unsure how to respond and referred the reporters to higher ranking security officers, according to the SPLC report.

Indeed, school officials may be hesitant to release security information because they aren't familiar with the law, Goodman said. “Ultimately, the individuals who make the decisions didn't know what the law was, and that's partly why they didn't comply,” he said.

John Jenkins, chief of police at George Mason University, said that during squad briefings his department notifies officers and staff about legal developments relating to campus crime disclosure. He said university police display security information in the department's lobby and distribute information to the student newspaper and media relations center.

“We report the (crime) statistics as required by law,” he said. When asked about claims that universities withhold distribution of crime information in order to protect their images, he said “absolutely not. Never have and never will.”

Reporters for the SPLC project were unable to access disciplinary records, partly because no federal law requires the release of such information — although no law prohibits its disclosure. State open-records laws, however, may require public universities to release this information.

Daniel Carter, vice president of the Pennsylvania-based advocacy group Security on Campus, emphasized the importance of access to disciplinary proceedings. “It's important so students can know if a violent offender has been allowed to remain on campus,” he said.

Goodman says disciplinary records are also important because many crimes are dealt with in campus courts, which have come under fire recently for inadequate investigations, mild punishments and disregard of due process.

“Our perception is that many schools are channeling very serious criminal incidents into these internal disciplinary proceedings, and, as a result, people have absolutely no idea of many criminal incidents that are being dealt with on campus,” Goodman said.

The SPLC report was released shortly after the Department of Education released a set of proposals for the enforcement of amendments to the Jeanne Clery Campus Crime Statistics Act. The new proposals would standardize campus crime reports, require reporting of some crimes that occur off campus and ensure more extensive reporting of hate crimes, homicide and arson. Carter said he was optimistic that these reforms would improve student awareness.

Although the Department of Education has cited some schools for not releasing their crime statistics in violation of federal law, no school has ever been fined for failing to comply with the original law.

Carter said he hoped the Department of Education would begin to enforce the laws more strictly. “If even one school that was severely violating the law were punished, I think a lot of schools would take the requirements much more seriously,” he said.

The SPLC's full report is available online.