Although crime is not a problem on the small, suburban campus of Drew University, in Madison, N.J., I decided to investigate what crimes we students are informed of and which ones are left out. In a journalist's mind, there's always a conspiracy. I was shocked to find that in the past nine years no incidents of sexual assault had occurred. Not one.
"This can't possibly be true," I thought. But, according to the annual crime report from the university's Department of Public Safety, the number of sexual assaults was zero. Then the Chief of Public Safety let me in on a little secret: The statistics don't tell the whole story.
Immediately I thought the university was trying to put one over on students. I found, though, that you can't necessarily blame the institution for the way the data are put together.
I learned that before 1990, colleges and universities were not legally required to make campus crime statistics public. When the Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act was passed, students, parents, and student-safety advocacy groups overcame a major hurdle in the campus safety struggle.
The law says schools that receive federal funding must disclose information about campus safety policies and procedures, in addition to posting a yearly crime report - including crimes such as murder, sexual assault (forcible), robbery, assault, burglary, and motor-vehicle theft. In addition, arrests involving weapons possession, drug-abuse violations, and liquor-law violations must also reported. "They're finally looking out for our safety," I thought after learning about the law.
But what about all those years after the act was passed? As it turns out, loopholes have allowed crimes such as sexual assault, particularly at Drew, to go unreported. Inherent flaws in the law are causing discrepancies in what the statistics say and what is really happening on campuses.
At Drew, for example, the local police but not the university's public-safety officers are authorized to make arrests, and therefore these incidents are not listed in the annual report. The situation is similar for sexual assaults. Unless an official police report is made, the statistics don't report that it happened. In most cases, the situation is handled internally by Public Safety, and therefore my peers and I have no way of knowing if we are in danger.
Another problem in judging safety: Schools use different sets of rules to compile statistics. According to the Campus Security Act, schools are supposed to use the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting/National Incident-Based Reporting System to make reports. But in a 1996 survey, the US Department of Education found that only 40 percent of institutions were using the FBI system. Forty-five percent were using state crime definitions, while another 16 percent used "other definitions." As a result, some schools appear safer than others when in fact they may not be.
And what about crimes off campus? Two years ago, students at Drew were informed by Public Safety of a serial rapist attacking young women at a local mall. Knowing students frequented the mall, campus officials felt we had the right to know about the situation. This is a good example why, in future amendments to the Campus Security Act, schools should be required to inform students of potentially dangerous situations or crimes off campus.
The Campus Security Act was a groundbreaking effort to help make sure students are aware of crimes on their campuses. But it needs to be tightened and amended to ensure our safety in reality and not just on paper.
* Frances Lucivero is graduating this month with a degree in political science from Drew University in Madison, N.J.