School security directors blast most dangerous list

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Monday, September 27, 2010

WASHINGTON—A recent report of the top 50 most dangerous colleges and universities in the United States has caused a major stir in the campus security community as well as by the organization spearheading the effort to accurately collect and publish campus safety information.

The Daily Beast, an online news organization that published the Sept. 14 list, has come under fire for inaccurately calculating statistics and using an arbitrary weighting system to determine the order of the most dangerous schools.

“They’re using stats like it’s fantasy baseball," said Jonathan Kassa, executive director of Security On Campus, Inc., an organization geared to the prevention of college and university campus crime and founders of the Jeanne Clery Act. “Stats are the tip of the iceberg and the policies underpinning it are what matters. We’re more interested in what the data means and how it can be used as an effective tool and framework for comprehensive planning.”

The Clery Act, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary this November, has helped clarify and define crimes and reporting standards, but reporting issues still exist for security practitioners. 

One of biggest challenges for schools is accurately collecting information from neighboring municipalities, said Rhonda Harris, Chief of the Rutgers University Police Department. Rutgers University-Newark, which was rated as the fourth most dangerous school in the Daily Beast list, is bordered by five municipalities, all which must report its crime data as required by the Clery Act.

“There are times when municipalities, because of a misinterpretation of the Clery Act regulations, may inaccurately report data,” said Harris, in an email interview with SDN. “We have worked to address this by building strong working relationships throughout the organization including between the records departments of the municipalities that report this information to us.”

Harris said that Rutgers University has developed a statistical recording system that identifies crimes to be reported under the Clery Act as they are reported to the police department. “This system helps to identify data much earlier in the process,” she said.

John Schmaltz, director of public safety for the University of Hartford, which was rated fifth on the Daily Beast article, cited similar reporting challenges. “We have a dance studio at an off-campus location and the Clery stats generated were from the public property surrounding the location. The reported crime took place around that area and the crimes reported didn’t actually involve anyone from the university,” he said.

What actually constitutes a crime under the Clery Act is also subject to interpretation and it’s not black and white, Schmaltz said. “We could report 100 crimes and others in that same situation may report seven, so it varies with who runs the department and how they correlate stats,” he said. “The government doesn’t seem to investigate or go over reports.”

That lack of oversight of proper reporting is critical to improving campus safety and ensuring an accurate representation of security issues at schools. Kassa from Security On Campus said he would like to see an increased collaboration between the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and fine schools that are improperly reporting crimes. Kassa said SOC works to aid the government in these efforts and advocates the public disclosure of schools that are fined to deter other universities from misreporting.

“Schools that report credible information should be positively reinforced and the U.S. Department of Education needs to weed out schools who are cooking the books and are never going make these lists,” Kassa said. “Schools who are doing wrong are tough to identify.”

Anyone involved in school security knows there will always be problems and Kassa said these reports are detrimental because they could encourage more schools to improperly report crime statistics.  “It’s a disservice to Jeanne Clery herself and the Clery Act for people to use that information against schools,” Kassa said. “We don’t like schools penalized for proper reporting.”