Federal statistics on campus crime present confusing disparities

All Baltimore colleges follow the same federal guidelines for reporting crimes on campus. But hard-to-explain discrepancies raise questions about the value of these reports in giving students and employees a snapshot of campus safety.
All Baltimore colleges follow the same federal guidelines for reporting crimes on campus. But hard-to-explain discrepancies raise questions about the value of these reports in giving students and employees a snapshot of campus safety. (Brendan Cavanaugh, Patuxent Publishing)

Campus crime statistics reported to the federal government show there were 15 burglaries at Morgan State University in 2010. But a review of the university's daily crime log found twice as many.

When reporting campus crime to the U.S. Department of Education, Morgan State downgraded many burglaries to thefts, following a federal directive that crimes not be reported as burglaries without evidence of unauthorized entry. And thefts — there were more than 100 reported at Morgan State in 2010 — are not included in the federal data on campus crime.


So a prospective or current student searching online for that data would find no evidence that thefts occurred, even though many experts say they are the most common campus crime.

The situation is just one example of the confusion that plagues college crime statistics. While experts say the data are a vast improvement over the available information from earlier decades, the system for informing the public of campus crime remains a work in progress.


"When I have to spend a half-hour explaining to you how to interpret the data, yes, that does call into question how useful it is," said S. Daniel Carter, a longtime campus safety advocate who has trained hundreds of security officials to work with the federal Clery Act.

All of Baltimore's colleges and universities follow the same federal guidelines for reporting crime. These rules, outlined in the 22-year-old Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistic Act, detail which crimes must be tallied in reports published by each institution.

But the rules are rife with gray areas, open to interpretation by campus security officials. And puzzling discrepancies in the numbers from Baltimore campuses raise further questions about the utility of the reports.

Between 2008 and 2010, for example, Morgan State reported 19 referrals for disciplinary action based on liquor law violations. In the same period, the Johns Hopkins University reported 693 such referrals for its Homewood campus and Loyola University Maryland reported 1,933 for its campus.


Adding to the confusion, these Clery reports barely touch on crime in the neighborhoods around city campuses. And Baltimore universities go to strikingly different lengths to keep students and employees informed of nearby incidents.

"It doesn't really tell the whole story," said Ed Skrodzki, head of security at Hopkins.

Concerns about campus crime reporting came to the forefront earlier this year, when Morgan State students questioned whether authorities had done enough to alert them to the dangers posed by student Alex Kinyua. He had been arrested in an on-campus assault two weeks before being accused of killing and cannibalizing a family friend off-campus.

Carter said the data on alcohol offenses and sexual assaults are particularly baffling, because campuses take radically different approaches in handling those issues.

Morgan spokesman Jarrett Carter said the disparity in alcohol referrals is probably caused by cultural differences and strict anti-drinking policies at Morgan. All of Maryland's historically black universities report few liquor violations compared to schools such as Hopkins, Loyola and Towson University.

"You don't find students at historically black colleges having keg parties," Jarrett Carter said. "It would take a lot to get beer or liquor in your room. It's not worth the trouble."

Despite the confusing disparities, S. Daniel Carter said high-profile cases such as the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings and the child sexual abuse scandal in Penn State's football program have helped to increase awareness about the Clery law and added to the urgency of campus crime reporting. Moreover, for all the vagaries in the data, Carter said, prospective students and employees have far easier access than they did 25 years ago to telling statistics about crime on every campus.

"As a practical matter, this information was simply not available to the public," he said. "It's easy to forget that now, but this was basically a closed book."

Several campus officials from Baltimore agreed that the Clery reports are useful, if imperfect. "I think it helps," said Terry Sawyer, vice president for administration at Loyola. "Families have a right to know what security procedures are in place and to have a grasp on the number of criminal incidents."

President George H.W. Bush signed the campus security act into law in 1990 after a four-year crusade by Howard and Connie Cleary in memory of their daughter Jeanne, who was raped and murdered by a fellow student at Lehigh University in 1986.

The law requires colleges and universities to publish annual reports containing three years' worth of crime statistics in categories such as murder, sex offenses, robbery, and liquor and drug violations. It also requires the institutions to provide "timely warnings" of an imminent threat to campus.

These rules are detailed in a 304-page handbook from the U.S. Department of Education that gets highly specific. For example, a campus must report crimes that happen on an adjacent public sidewalk, the road next to that sidewalk and the sidewalk on the other side of that road. But if a crime occurs in a private house just beyond the far sidewalk, it is not included in the annual Clery report.

In some cases, the specificity of definitions seems to allow campuses to minimize the reporting of certain types of crime. Burglary, for example, is defined as "unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or a theft."

A recent case at Morgan shows how fine the distinction is between burglary and theft. A summer student's laptop was stolen from his room on a July evening, according to a police report. The next day, another student found someone trying to sell the laptop and returned it to its owner, according to the report.

But Morgan State Police classified the crime as a theft because the investigating officer found no evidence that anyone had broken into the student's room. Adrian Wiggins, Morgan's outgoing police chief, said any of the student's three roommates, who were not interviewed by police, could have stolen the laptop, as could anyone they might have invited into the room.

The university's officers complained about a culture of underreporting offenses in a 2010 vote of no confidence in Wiggins and in a recent letter to Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

In the letter, Thaddeus Davis of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 142, wrote that department leadership "is under reporting crimes in an effort to conceal a problem with crime on and around Morgan's campus."

Wiggins denied the allegation. "I'm trying very hard, and the university is working very hard, to follow the letter and the spirit of the statute," Wiggins said.

Gansler's office confirmed it received the letter but declined to comment further.


Since the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, much scrutiny of the Clery Act has focused on its "timely warning" requirement. The law requires an alert if a Clery crime has been reported to campus or local authorities and if the crime is "considered by the institution to represent a serious or continuing threat to students and employees."


But the judgment calls on "serious or imminent" threats are not clear. Some Morgan State students questioned why the university did not issue an alert after Kinyua was arrested and accused of brutally assaulting a fellow student outside a campus residence on May 19. Less than two weeks later, after posting bond, Kinyua was accused of dismembering a family friend and eating his heart and some of his brain at a Harford County residence.

Kinyua also had been described as a "Virginia Tech waiting to happen" in an earlier campus police report.

Morgan officials have said they took appropriate steps to bar Kinyua from campus after the alleged assault and have repeatedly noted that the killing happened far from the university.

Wiggins said he considered sending out an alert.

"Because he was apprehended in a rather rapid fashion, with the information we had at the time, we considered doing those things, but we did not because he was in custody," said Wiggins, who was recently promoted to the new post of campus chief public safety officer.

S. Daniel Carter, the campus safety advocate, said Morgan followed an established standard by not putting out a warning after Kinyua's alleged assault. "The general consensus in the field is that if a known suspect has been apprehended, the immediate threat has been mitigated," he said.

But he added that some campuses post or e-mail bulletins detailing significant crimes, even if the immediate threat is abated. Carter called that a "best practice."

In the Virginia Tech case, the university faced $55,000 in federal fines for failing to issue an alert when two students were found fatally shot in a residence hall, about two hours before the same shooter massacred 30 more. But a judge reversed those fines earlier this year, saying university police handled the situation reasonably.

Crime in surrounding neighborhoods is an aspect of campus safety largely unaddressed by Clery requirements but paramount to security officials at Baltimore colleges and universities. They're well aware that many students live in private residences and patronize businesses just a few blocks from campus. As a result, many campus police departments — including Morgan, Loyola and the University of Baltimore — have agreements to patrol such areas in tandem with city police.

Several, including Loyola and Hopkins, voluntarily post online reports about crime in the surrounding area, even if students and employees aren't directly involved.

"I consider that extremely important," said Skrodzki, whose department publishes a daily online account of incidents in the vicinity of Homewood.

At Loyola, police recently sent a campuswide email about a robbery at a McDonald's on York Road that is frequently patronized by students.

"We make a judgment call," Sawyer said. "The basic question is, 'If the students had this information, would it benefit them?'"

Others, such as Morgan State and the University of Maryland, Baltimore, choose not to post neighborhood crime reports, though the police chiefs at both said they send e-mail bulletins if there's a threat at an off-campus spot frequented by students.

Security officials try not to pelt students with too many alerts because they don't want them to seem routine and easy to ignore.

"We don't want to get into a position where people think we're crying wolf," said Samuel Tress, police chief at the University of Baltimore.

Tress' department of 34 officers patrols a stretch of 40 blocks centered around Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue. He sends a sergeant to weekly meetings of Central District police commanders and posts summaries of neighborhood crimes on the university's website. "We're taking it a step further than Clery requires," Tress said.