Campus crime reports may be misleading

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Laura Brown

ltbrown@radford.edu

When deciding on what college to attend, many factors must be considered. Perhaps one of the most important is the violent crime rate on college campuses.

For the purpose of this article, violent crime will consist of aggravated assault and sexual assault. According to the 1990 Federal Jeanne Clergy Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, “all colleges that participate in federal student aid programs must report their crime data for each calendar year.” It is important to recognize that while each college provides this information, looking at the raw numbers alone may be misleading.

Sarah Kalsinsky, 18, of Virginia Beach, Va., is an upcoming college freshman. She said that she looked at a number of different factors before choosing Virginia Commonwealth University.

“My main reason for choosing VCU was because it has a great Sports Medicine program,” Kalsinsky said.

Kalsinsky admitted that she did not think to look at the crime rate, but her parents insisted she check it out.

“My parents are a bit nervous about me attending VCU because of the high crime rate,” Kalsinsky said.

Many students and parents often have the impression that universities in bigger cities are more dangerous. One reason for this is the fact that they do not consider the population of the school or city. On every crime report given, the statistics for the last three years are displayed. Nowhere on the page does it show the average population of the school. That information can be found in a completely different part of the school website, usually in the admissions section.

For example, one may be alarmed to see that the University of Virginia reported 10 instances of violent crime in 2009. That person may like the idea of Longwood University, which only reported four. Now let’s add in population. The population of UVA is six times as large as Longwood, with 24,500 students compared to 4,700. This helps explain the higher crime rate.

When it comes down to the ratio of population to reported violent crime, it was actually the smaller schools like Longwood, William & Mary and Radford University that had the higher crime rate.

Sgt. Scott Shaffer is head of the Crime Prevention and Community Outreach unit and has been a member of the Radford University Police Department for the past 10 years. He is responsible for coordinating training on campus, educational outreach, security assessments, Clery Act Compliance and a host of other duties. He had much to say about the accuracy of college crime reports.

“Crime rates can be misleading and misinterpreted,” Shaffer said. “Pure statistical comparisons don’t always show the real picture.”

One factor that may cause an inaccuracy is the how crimes are categorized and reported. To help with this problem there is the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. Through this organization, universities discuss protocols, procedures and best practices. Even though there are guidelines, crimes may still be reported differently from campus to campus.

Geography is another factor that must be considered when analyzing crime rates. Shaffer brought up some thought-provoking questions.

“Is the campus in close proximity to the rest of the locality [such as Radford which is literally surrounded by a large population of off-campus students] where crimes spill onto campus? Or is the campus isolated from the crime areas of the other localities?”

Many crime reports may be skewed because incidents are reported to local police instead of university police. This would cause that information to be left out of the campus crime report.

No matter how you look at it, there is crime wherever you go. It is important to research the area you are in so you can stay informed of what is going on. Besides looking at the college crime reports, other options have been made available through laws and organization.

Megan’s Law was established in 1996 as an amendment to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. In July 1994, Megan Kanka, age 7, went to visit a neighbor who was a twice-convicted pedophile. He raped and murdered the girl and then disposed of her remains. Megan’s Law was written and passed two years later. In brief, the statutes require states to establish registration programs so local law enforcement will know the whereabouts of sex offenders released into their jurisdictions, and notification programs so the public can be warned about sex offenders living in the community.

It is easy to access the sex offender website and see exactly where registered sex offenders are living in the area. This information can be obtained by using the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website at nsopw.gov.  The database can be searched by name, state, or zip code.

Besides staying informed, there are others ways to be safe. Many colleges offer courses to help students, especially young women, defend themselves.

According to the website “the Rape Aggression Defense System is a program of realistic, self-defense tactics and techniques. The R.A.D. System is a comprehensive course for women that begin with awareness, prevention, risk reduction and avoidance, while progressing on to the basics of hands-on defense training.” The majority of Virginia universities offer this 12-hour class at least once a year.

For the most part, universities in Virginia are doing a lot to prevent violent crime. Even when an event occurs, counseling services are offered through the university to help the victims cope. James Madison University offers CARE, Campus Assault Response Helpline, that caters to specific situations. According to Caitlin Wood, president of CARE, “CARE creates an environment that offers compassion and support for sexual assault and intimate partner violence survivors. Volunteers offer a free and confidential support system including a 24/7 telephone helpline service and a Peer Assistant program.”

Deciding where to attend college is a big decision that many students must make or have already made. It is important to not only know where to get the facts, but how to interpret them. Crime is going to happen everywhere, but how you stay informed and prepare yourself may affect whether or not it happens to you.