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A sexual assault prevention program documented 46 sexual assaults at West Virginia University in a recent academic year. But those 46 incidents didn’t show up in the university’s annual security report.

A counseling and victim advocacy program at the University of Iowa served 62 students, faculty, and staff who reported being raped or almost raped in the last fiscal year. Those incidents didn’t show up, either.

A victim advocate program at Florida State University compiled statistics on 57 sexual offenses both on and off campus in 2008. Only a fraction of those incidents appeared in the school’s official crime statistics.

Across the higher education community, such discrepancies are not unusual. A nine-month investigation by The Center for Public Integrity has found that limitations and loopholes in the federal mandatory campus crime reporting law, known as the Clery Act, are causing systematic problems in accurately documenting the total numbers of campus-related sexual assaults. The most troubling of these loopholes involves broadly applied reporting exemptions for counselors who may be covered by confidentiality protections. Confusion over definitions of sexual offenses, as well as the law’s comprehensive reporting provisions, have created additional problems. “When you talk to 10 different institutions,” explains Marlon Lynch, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, “you almost find 10 different ways of reporting under the law.”

Available data suggest that, on many campuses, far more sexual offenses are occurring than are reflected in the official Clery numbers. A Center survey of 152 crisis-services programs and clinics on or near college campuses requested incident numbers over the past year: 58 facilities responded with hard statistics. Clery totals from higher education institutions are theoretically supposed to include information from such service providers, but confusion remains over exactly who must report. A comparison of the survey data with the schools’ previous five-year average of official Clery totals shows that the clinic numbers are considerably higher, suggesting a systematic problem with Clery data collection.

Responses to the Center’s survey found that 49 out of those 58 crisis-services programs and clinics recorded higher reports of sexual offenses in a recent one-year period than the average yearly figure submitted by their schools in Clery statistics from 2002 to 2006 — the last five years for which full Clery data are available. At Florida State University, for instance, those 57 sexual assaults logged by the victim advocacy program are more than double the university’s average 26 sexual offenses recorded from 2002 to 2006.

Some of the discrepancies are explainable. Many clinics record higher statistics because they serve a broader clientele than the schools’ student populations or because some of the incidents occurred elsewhere — particularly off campus. And crisis counselors say they routinely document reports from students who were sexually assaulted on spring break, raped in high school, or molested as children — none of which fall under Clery reporting requirements. But many survey respondents affirmed assertions from critics that colleges and universities are ducking bad publicity by exploiting weaknesses in the Clery Act and ignoring their clinic numbers, thus keeping official statistics low.

“Clery, in our minds, doesn’t do what it was intended to do,” says Mary Friedrichs of the Office of Victim Assistance at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The 42 sexual assaults documented by her program in one recent year didn’t appear in the university’s Clery data because, as certified counselors with confidentiality exemptions, her staff doesn’t report them to the campus police. By comparison, CU recorded an average of 14 sexual offenses from 2002 to 2006. Echoing many victim advocates, Friedrichs adds, “We don’t think it [the official data] tells a story that is understandable.”

Clery Confusion

The Clery Act requires some 7,500 colleges and universities — nearly 4,000 of which are four-year public and private institutions — to disclose statistics about crime on or near their campuses in annual security reports. Many provisions have evolved since the law passed 19 years ago, but what hasn’t changed is Clery’s requirement that schools poll a wide range of “campus security authorities” when gathering data. That designation includes a broad array of campus programs, departments, and centers, such as student health centers, women’s centers, and even counseling centers. The designation also applies to officials who supervise students — deans, coaches, housing directors, judicial affairs officers, to name a few. Experts on the law say that any center or program set up by an institution to respond to crime victims and to serve their needs should be designated a campus security authority, requiring Clery reporting. Only licensed mental-health and pastoral counselors are explicitly exempt from Clery reporting requirements.

In theory, those stipulations should make for comprehensive crime reporting. At the University of Iowa, a compliance team, led by the public safety department, collects documentation from non-police campus authorities and compiles statistics. According to Associate Dean of Students Tom Baker, who oversaw the process for years, the university distributes an e-mail letter seeking key details on sexual assaults and other crimes reported to campus authorities in a half-dozen offices and programs, including the school’s sexual misconduct response coordinator. The law requires schools to solicit information from local police departments, and Iowa’s team contacts four of them.

But the data gathering isn’t always meticulous. In fact, a 2002 study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice found that “only 36.5 percent of schools reported crime statistics in a manner that was fully consistent with the Clery Act.” A Center examination of 10 years worth of complaints filed against institutions under Clery shows that the most common problem is that schools are not properly collecting data. Some submit only reports from law-enforcement officials. In August 2004, Yale University became the subject of a complaint after it was discovered to be doing just that. Five years later, the U.S. Department of Education has yet to finish its review; a department spokesperson declined to comment on the pending inquiry. Evidently, though, the complaint has sparked some changes. Peter Parker, who heads Yale’s sexual harassment grievance board, began forwarding sexual assault data to the school’s official Clery reporter in 2007. “Before that,” he confirms, “nobody had asked us to compile our reports.”

Other schools submit inaccurate sexual assault statistics — in some cases inadvertently; in others cases, intentionally. Nearly half of the 25 Clery complaint investigations conducted by the Education Department over the past decade determined that schools were omitting sexual offenses collected by some sources or failing to report them at all. In October 2007, the department fined LaSalle University, in Philadelphia, $110,000 for not reporting 28 crimes, including a small number of sexual assaults. (The university appealed the decision and then settled for $87,500, without admitting it was at fault.) In April 2005, Salem International University, in West Virginia, agreed to pay the department $200,000 in fines after never reporting a sexual offense in its Clery reports, even though the school itself had documented such offenses.

There’s also been misclassification of sexual assaults. Schools can wrongly categorize reports of acquaintance rape or fondling as “non-forcible” sexual offenses — a definition that should only apply to incest and statutory rape. Five of the 25 Clery audits found schools were miscoding forcible rapes as non-forcible instead. In June 2008, Eastern Michigan University agreed to pay the department $350,000 — the largest Clery fine ever — for a host of violations, including miscoding rapes. In February 2002, officials determined that Mount Saint Mary College, in New York, had incorrectly reported two sexual offenses as non-forcible; the school had to correct the error. The problem has grown so prevalent that the department now calls schools whenever they submit even one report of a non-forcible sexual offense.

“I don’t know anyone who’s read the definitions [who] can claim there are any non-forcible sex offenses on campuses,” says David Bergeron of the department’s Office of Postsecondary Education, which monitors Clery compliance. Still, 27 colleges reported one or two non-forcible sex offenses in their 2006 Clery data.

School officials and watchdog groups agree that colleges have improved Clery reporting over the past two decades. Dolores Stafford, police chief at George Washington University and a national expert on the Clery Act, has trained campus police officers and administrators on the law since the late 1990s, and has seen what she calls “a sea change” in attitudes, which she attributes to improved training and guidance from the Education Department. These days, she says, “There are less intentional and egregious violators.” Department audits still reveal schools getting in trouble over their data, she explains, “but not a whole lot of areas where people are purposely underreporting or over-reporting.”

Are the Numbers Believable?

Indeed, today’s issues may be subtler than that. Rape generally ranks among the most underreported of all crime statistics, experts say. But critics point out that the huge percentage of schools reporting no incidents whatsoever indicates a serious problem with Clery data collection. In 2006, in fact, 3,068 two- and four-year colleges and universities — 77 percent — reported zero sexual offenses. Another 501 reported just one or two.

All those miniscule totals look like red flags to watchdog organizations. “Find any school with a zero, and you’ll find problems with Clery reporting,” asserts Margaret Jakobson, a victims’ advocate who’s testified before Congress about issues with Clery compliance. In the late ’90s, Jakobson, along with Security on Campus, a watchdog group, filed some of the earliest Clery Act complaints after identifying students who had reported being raped on campuses touting zeros.

“It strains believability to think that those numbers could actually be true,” says Mark Goodman, former director of the Student Press Law Center, which has long lobbied to close Clery loopholes. He, like many critics, suspects that some schools are intentionally misinterpreting their obligations under Clery and weeding out reports in order to protect their reputations as safe campuses.

But Lynch, of the law enforcement administrators, and other campus police chiefs believe all those zeros most likely reflect something else: Most rape victims don’t report the crime in the first place. The 2002 Justice Department-funded study has actually pegged the number of college women who report their rapes to campus police or other officials at just under five percent. It could be that some schools with low sexual assault statistics don’t do a good job at encouraging student victims to come forward. Or it could be that some do — and still end up with zeros. After all, one limitation of the Clery Act is that statistics reflect “official” reports. In other words, a victim has to tell a campus security authority for a sexual assault to count.

“We get the feeling that people would prefer that we would report a lot of sexual assaults even if we were making it up,” observes Stafford, the George Washington chief, “but I can only report what I know.”

Another limitation of the Clery Act: it counts only those crimes occurring on or near campuses, and in school-affiliated buildings like fraternity houses. The initial thinking behind this narrow geographic focus was that off-campus crimes would inevitably be documented by local police, experts say. But that means that Clery statistics don’t include such settings as off-campus apartments, where most campus-related rapes are believed to take place. Last year, Jacqui Pequignot, who heads the victim advocate program at Florida State, recorded just nine sexual offenses on or near campus, as compared to 48 off campus. Pequignot, who estimates that 36,000 of FSU’s 42,000 students live in apartments more than a block from the university, notes that critics often suspect misreporting whenever they don’t see huge numbers of campus sexual assaults. “But sometimes,” she says, “it’s really just about the fact that the numbers are greater off campus.”

See No Evil

Some schools ignore the reports of sexual assaults they do have. At the University of Iowa, alleged victims are instructed to contact the Rape Victim Advocacy Program for medical and counseling services. Housed on campus, the advocacy program records all calls, and categorizes incidents on or off campus. But these numbers don’t appear in the university’s security report, confirms associate counsel Rob Porter, because certified counselors make up the staff — and they have that privacy exemption. Instead, the school explains in a report footnote that the advocacy program has its own statistics.

And that’s more than what some schools do with counselors’ reports. At Texas Tech University, counselors don’t track the details of an alleged assault — its time, its location — needed for Clery reporting purposes. Jack Floyd, who compiles the Clery data, says counselors are encouraged to forward information about sexual assaults and other crimes to campus police. But, he affirms, “Nobody has returned a report form since I’ve been here,” beginning in 2001.

“Confidentiality inhibits our requirement to do so,” says Eileen Nathan, of the Texas Tech counseling center, explaining why the staff do not submit reports.

In fact, some counselors believe the fine print of the Clery Act encourages them not to report. Under the law, licensed therapists and pastoral counselors are the only campus employees excluded from reporting requirements. Schools can still use aggregate information — minus names and other identifying information — on sexual assaults from counseling centers, experts say. And interviews with survey respondents reveal that some colleges designate a center staffer as a campus authority for Clery purposes. Others offer a blanket exemption to the entire counseling staff, however, fueling criticisms that administrators are merely exploiting a loophole to keep official statistics low. Even Education Department officials suggest as much.

“Some institutions may try to stretch that [counselor] privilege,” Bergeron says.

One of the schools that has faced controversy on that front is West Virginia University. Deb Beazley is the sexual assault prevention educator at WVU; she is not a licensed counselor. Beazley helps alleged victims navigate services and heads the countywide sexual assault response team that services the campus. She maintains what she calls a “universal reporting system” of incidents culled from her records, as well as from university faculty and staff. She classifies the anonymous, third-party reports based on incident date, time, and location, either on or off campus. She even records the birth date of alleged victims to avoid double-counting. By all accounts, she compiles numbers in a way that would satisfy Clery requirements. But they don’t end up in official data, as per school policy, even though West Virginia counts rape reports forwarded to campus police by non-police campus authorities.

“It’s important to understand that, by definition, what Deb is collecting is survey data,” explains Bob Roberts, police chief at West Virginia University, “and we do not take survey data because it is anonymous.”

Roberts is not a stranger to Clery reporting disputes; in March 2004, West Virginia became the subject of a Clery Act complaint after three whistleblower police officers alleged that the university was miscoding crimes. Last September, the Education Department found some problems with the way the university had dealt with sexual assaults — misclassifying forcible and non-forcible offenses, and failing to include sexual assault reports. In its response to the department’s preliminary findings, dated October 30, 2008, the university admitted the errors and outlined recent steps to bolster its record-keeping. But counting Beazley’s anonymous reports isn’t among the improvements.

“You have to compare apples to apples,” contends Roberts, who now trains campus officials around the state on the finer points of the Clery Act, “and other campuses I know of are not reporting anonymous data.”

Yet some schools clearly are — Florida State, for one. Experts say colleges should count numbers from any campus program set up for victims to report crimes and seek services. Stafford, the George Washington chief, collects statistics from her university’s response team, its counseling center, and its health center in order to “give people a full picture of what’s happening on the campus.” Still, she stresses that schools ignoring these numbers are not necessarily violating the law.

“It is not clear in the [Education Department’s Clery Act] handbook or in the law … that victim advocates and sexual assault services coordinators are required to report,” she says. “It’s a big weakness right now.”

And one not likely to change any time soon. According to Bergeron, the Education Department has to allow some room for schools to interpret who actually constitutes a campus security authority; after all, it has to regulate everything from a for-profit technical school to a four-year university. He doubts it’s possible to write a department regulation answering “every question in every circumstance that everyone on a campus would ever encounter,” he adds.

But there’s little doubt that the differing interpretations of the law are sowing confusion — with one school submitting sexual assault statistics beyond what’s required and another the bare minimum. Ultimately, these loopholes, coupled with the law’s limitations, can render Clery data almost meaningless. Victim advocates point out that the schools they believe are reporting the most accurate sexual assault numbers — the 10 percent who reported three or more rapes in 2006 — now have to compete with all those schools touting zeros.

“It’s almost like UMass gets penalized for doing it correctly,” notes Rebecca Lockwood, who heads rape crisis services at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where her program numbers are gathered for Clery purposes. In 2006, UMass Amherst ranked among just 61 schools, or 1.5 percent, documenting campus sexual assaults in the double digits. As Lockwood sees it, “I’d like to see the schools that report zero be held accountable.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this article erroneously reported that the Department of Education fined LaSalle University for ignoring crime data, including 28 sexual assaults. The university and the department later reached a settlement. The data in question actually involved a total of 28 crimes, of which only a small number were sexual offenses. The error arose out of a misreading of an Education Department document. The article posted on the Center’s website has been revised accordingly.

CORRECTION: The original version incorrectly stated 77 percent of four-year universities reported 0 rapes in 2006. The article should have said 77 percent of two and four year universities reported 0 rapes.

Reporting Fellow Claritza Jimenez contributed to this article.

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Kristen Lombardi is the Columbia Journalism Investigations editor.