Last week, I received a standard email from a parent of a high school student: "My daughter is looking at X College, but I heard it's really bad in terms of sexual assault. Could you recommend somewhere similar in size and culture, but safer?"
Last Thursday, in an effort to answer this national question, members of Congress sent a bipartisan letter encouraging U.S. News and World Report to include campus safety data in their rankings.
The letter, obtained by Huffington Post, details:
We urge you to include violence statistics in annual Clery reports and information about institutions' efforts to prevent and respond to incidents of campus sexual assault, including whether those institutions that have been found to be in violation of Title IX provisions regarding sexual violence, when ranking colleges and universities.
While on the surface this idea makes sense, as safety should be a factor in the overall evaluation of an institution, there are issues with the metrics the letter suggests. Using these two metrics, "statistics in annual Clery reports" and "institutions that have been found to be in violation of Title IX" neither paint a complete nor accurate picture of campus safety.
With the intricacies and complications of these proposed metrics, it would be practically fraudulent for U.S. News and World Report to use them. Here's why:
1. Clery Reportable Geography Gives Some Schools an "Advantage"
Among other things, the Clery Act requires institutions to disclose the number of certain crimes that happen within Clery reportable geography. Clery reportable geography basically includes campus buildings, off campus buildings owned by the university and immediately adjacent property. The Act is very specific, even goes so far as to draw diagrams to illustrate which sidewalks and parking lots fall within Clery jurisdiction.
What "counts" under Clery is problematic when comparing the raw numbers from different institutions. For instance, let's look at two universities, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), and Florida State University (FSU), both of which are under scrutiny for systemically mishandling sexual assault cases. At UNC, nearly half of students currently live on campus in the residence halls, which are within Clery reportable geography. Compare that to FSU, where 80 percent of students live off campus where Clery has no jurisdiction, despite that many students live in apartment complexes even one or two streets away from the main campus.
The vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by people known to the victim, and in college, that means most often assaults occur between students. If FSU has five off campus student assaults in a privately owned apartment building in one weekend, and UNC has two assaults in residence halls in that same weekend, UNC would be required to report two assaults for their annual Clery crime statistics, whereas FSU wouldn't be required to report any. This limit imposed by reportable geography misrepresents the number of sexual assault that really occur in the campus community.
2. Lower Numbers of Reports Does Not Mean Less Sexual Assault
Conventional logic would reason that campuses with lower numbers of reported sexual assaults are safer than their university counterparts with higher numbers of reported sexual assaults; yet, the opposite is often true.
Statistically, 1 in 5 women will be the victim of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during their time at college. Therefore, campuses that have higher numbers of reported sexual assaults are more likely to be accurately reporting their numbers, and campuses with crime reports of "0" reported sexual assaults are red flags, not the safest colleges.
Additionally, if U.S. News and World Report equates low numbers of reported assaults with safer campuses, institutions have even more of a perverse incentive to discourage reporting and intentionally misrepresent their campuses.
3. Higher Crime Reports Could Indicate Better Survivor Support
There are a myriad of reasons why survivors don't report (see the recent #WhyIDidn'tReport twitter trend). Shame, guilt, victim-blaming, a lack of justice when one does report and the re-victimizing process of a hearing are just a few of them. While reporting isn't for everyone, schools with processes in place to support survivors and make reporting less painless will see higher Clery numbers.
These higher numbers are not only more accurate; they could also indicate that students feel more comfortable reporting because of competent policies, faith that reporting will help them and the presence of survivor-centered resources.
As S. Daniel Carter, Director of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation's 32 National Campus Safety Initiative explains, "Using the standard that schools with higher numbers are more dangerous is going to misrepresent the safety of those campuses and the safety of campuses that have lower numbers."
This means that schools with higher numbers, those who might be more aggressively tackling their schools sexual assault problem, will be incorrectly deemed as less safe. Or, as Carter explains: "You are going to penalize institutions for doing the right thing."
4. A Title IX Investigation Means: "The University Got Caught"
One survivor, who recently filed a Title IX and Clery Act complaint against her school stated: "(My College) is not more or less safe than other schools in our system. We just filed and the university got caught."
A Department of Education Title IX or Clery investigation, and the resulting media attention, places an institution under a public microscope. Yet, these investigations do not mean a school is unique in having a sexual assault problem. Recently it was estimated that 63 percent of institutions violate the Clery Act regularly, yet only a handful of schools are currently under investigation by the Clery Compliance Division within the Department of Education.
The Department of Education, with its current level of personnel, can only investigate a fraction of these complaints every year. Because of this, the Department often chooses cases which will be an example to other schools, and sometimes those have "bigger" names, letting smaller schools with similar problems off the hook. Additionally, those universities found in violation of Title IX or Clery are forced to reform their policies, whereas universities free from public scrutiny are not. Therefore "found to be in violation of Title IX" is a misguided and inaccurate metric for campus safety.
5. Campus Safety Encompasses More Than Campus Assault
S. Daniel Carter explains that while sexual assault is "by far the most common serious crime that occurs on campus and in campus communities," he recognizes that other issues complete the picture of campus safety. "Alcohol and other drugs are right up there with well being of campus community," he says.
Other safety related factors, such as a well-trained police force, timely warnings issued to students in the case of a campus crime, the percentage of students who experience drug and alcohol overdose, if students are allowed to carry guns on campus, and sexual assault prevention education are all part of a campus' safety climate, and they should not be overlooked.
How do we know which colleges are safest?
When our country sends our children off to school, we want them to be safe. Parents, students, and Congress alike are asking for a ranking that says one school is bad and one school is good, but the reality of campus safety is much more nuanced than that, and ranking colleges based on flawed metrics does not prevent our children from being at risk.
As I told the mother interested in sending her daughter to a "safe school," families should look at the written and practiced policies at an institution. During campus visits, orientation, or through sending an email, students should ask questions about campus safety, as experts continue to work on mechanisms which can more accurate rate schools.
Research Based Policy
In the past year, campus rape has been a hot button topic both for the media and higher education, so it's no surprise that local and federal legislators have taken interest. As this letter to U.S. News and World Report illustrates, however, even though lawmakers do care, rushed recommendations without the proper research has the potential to be harmful. Congress should take the time necessary to understand the extent of the problem before rushing to silver bullet solutions. If they need help, the students who have brought the issue to the forefront are waiting to be heard.