In Annual Statistics, Most Colleges Claim Zero Reported Sex Offenses

It would be an insult to anyone possessing the tiniest flicker of intelligence to suggest that, in a 12-month period on a college campus, no student had reported to any campus employee that he or she had been a victim of a forcible sex offense.

Which says a lot about the staff of the Department of Education. Because every October, most of the around 11,000 higher education institutions in the country file reports saying just that. And the department -- which is tasked with enforcing the law that requires this reporting -- does nothing.

The annual crime report is one of the key provisions of the Clery Act, a law designed to help students protect themselves by providing information about crime on campus. Institutions receiving federal education funding must submit the total numbers of reported violent crimes on campus in the past year.

In the last few months, a great deal of attention has been devoted to the Clery Act's role in preventing sexual assault on campus. New mandatory categories have been added to these reports, and Congress has discussed the possibility of increasing fines for violations.

Which would be great, if the reports themselves weren't mostly a collection of outrageous lies rubber-stamped by the Department of Education.

The Student Press Law Center (my employer) and The Columbus Dispatch recently completed an audit of the last 12 years of these reports for all the colleges in the United States.

The result? Every year, the majority of schools tell the Department of Education they have received zero reports of forcible sex offenses. (And we're talking about reports to non-clergy, non-counselor staff members, not just law enforcement.)

One of two things is true: Either these schools are outright lying through their collective teeth, or the schools are working very hard not to find victims on their campuses.

You might well think, "Okay, the Clery Act has penalty provisions. Aren't schools afraid of being found to have violated the Clery Act by failing to count sexual assault numbers properly?"

Mmm, no. The odds of being caught are almost nil. From the SPLC/Dispatch investigation: "Federal education officials, who typically investigate only after a complaint has been filed, have audited only about six dozen of the nation's 11,000 schools."

And that's since reporting started in 1991. So let's do a little bit of back-of-the-envelope math: 11,000 schools reporting for 21 years (because the numbers above stopped at 2012) resulted in about 72 audits. The odds of being audited, then, are around 1 in 3,200 and change.

The odds of being struck by lightning in your lifetime are about 1 in 3,000.

So why doesn't the Department of Education audit some of the schools reporting zeroes -- which, again, is most of them? If you pick a random number between one and 11,000, and count that many names down the list of universities, the odds are in your favor that the name you find claims to have heard of no sexual assaults whatsoever.

Because it's not their job, they say.

Jim Moore, the Department of Education official in charge of these statistics, defends them in the SPLC/Dispatch piece by saying, "We encourage people to use the Clery Act as a starting point," Moore said.

But if, ultimately, the annual Clery numbers are so unreliable that a student looking for safety information is expected to do her own research thereafter, what is this annual report even for?

If the Department of Education does no auditing of any kind on this data until someone makes a complaint, why even have an annual reporting deadline?

Perhaps it's the result of an agency rule-making processes that packs a room with lobbyists and representatives of the institutions supposedly to be regulated. Perhaps it's the result of too many years of deferring to educational institutions as if they were some kind of mysterious alien worlds that shouldn't have to answer to our common notions of transparency and decency.

Whatever the cause, the result is clear. As it exists, the annual statistics in the Clery Act make students slightly less safe by providing a federally mandated and endorsed format for lying about crime. If the Obama administration is serious about preventing sexual assault on campus, it has to start by actually enforcing the minimal requirement that the colleges attempt to count the number of students brave enough to speak out about the crimes they've experienced.