COLUMBUS — The crime statistics being released by colleges nationwide on Wednesday are so misleading that they give students and parents a false sense of security, an examination has found.

Even the U.S. Department of Education official who oversees compliance with a federal law requiring that the statistics be posted on Oct. 1 each year admits that they are inaccurate, notes the joint investigation by the Columbus Dispatch and the Student Press Law Center. Jim Moore said that a vast majority of schools comply with the law but said that some schools purposely under-report crimes to protect their images; others have made honest mistakes in attempting to comply.

In addition, weaknesses in the law allow for thousands of off-campus crimes involving students — such as the off-campus rape of a University of Toledo student in September, 2013 — to go unreported, and the education department does little to monitor or enforce compliance with the law — even when colleges report numbers that seem questionable.

Elizabeth City State University is one that seemed like a safe campus on paper.

The North Carolina school’s annual crime reports showed that during an 11-year span, no student ever had been sexually assaulted.

But then in April, 2013, a dorm security guard pushed student Katherine Lowe onto her bed and fondled her. It was the fourth time he had done that to her, and she was determined that it would be the last. She went to police, who soon learned the truth: The school’s crime reports were wrong.

Police discovered as many as 17 sexual-assault victims whose cases never were reported to federal education officials — a gross violation of a law that requires colleges to count and report crimes on and near their campuses.

What happened at Elizabeth City State is one of many examples of what’s wrong with the Clery Act, a complicated law fraught with loopholes that can allow colleges to make their campuses and neighborhoods look safer than they really are.

The law — inspired by the slaying of Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Clery, who was unaware of a rash of burglaries in her dorm in 1986 prior to her death — was enacted in 1991 to alert students to dangers on campus, but it often fails at its core mission, a joint investigation by the Columbus Dispatch and the Student Press Law Center found.

Colleges such as Elizabeth City State and Urbana University in Ohio have failed at meeting the most basic requirements of the law: accurately counting and reporting the number of crimes that happen on and near campus each year.

Other colleges have drawn boundaries around their campuses to exclude off-campus housing where the majority of their students live — as the law allows. And some often choose not to alert students when violent crimes happen in those areas.


Tough conversations

The University of Toledo campus sprawls across 800 acres and has more than 20,000 students. Ohio Wesleyan University is a small private school in Delaware on 200 acres with about 1,850 students.

Yet between 2001 and 2012 Ohio Wesleyan has reported four times as many sexual assaults (72) as Toledo (18).

Ohio Wesleyan’s number is higher because almost all of its students live on campus, and administrators have placed a priority on encouraging victims to come forward.

As soon as students step on campus, Ohio Wesleyan officials talk with them about sexual assaults. Each student is required to take a two-hour online course on sexual assault, harassment, and alcohol abuse. They’ve created policies — such as not punishing a victim who was drunk at the time of an assault as some schools do — that encourage reporting.

“We’ve worked very hard to create a safe environment,” said Kimberlie L. Goldsberry, dean of students.

Toledo, by its own admission, knows the number of sexual assaults reported under the Clery Act is low. Like at some other schools, Toledo officials blame themselves for in the past not having the kind of culture that educates faculty and students on the importance of reporting crimes.

“I completely agree that number is low, extremely low,” said Mary Martinez, Toledo’s student conduct officer. “It’s been a national epidemic, and sexual assaults have been underreported for a long while, and it was hardly talked about. Every school needs to be having these difficult conversations with the students, parents, and administrators. We all can do better educating our campuses.”

At least one student has filed a federal complaint against Toledo for its handling of her rape case.

The student, who as a victim of a sex-related crime is not identified by The Blade, said the university belittled her allegations that a male student — and once a good friend — raped her in his apartment near campus in September, 2013.

The 23-year-old woman had four beers and fell asleep the man’s couch. Later, she accepted an offer to join him in bed. She had stayed there before with no problems.

But this time, she woke in the night and saw him putting on a condom. She was still drunk.

“It happened so fast, it felt like an out-of-body experience, like I was watching it but trying to stop it at the same time,” she said. She fought. She said no, over and over. He didn’t stop, she said. “I can just remember being very confused and in pain.”

University of Toledo officials declined to discuss the case, citing student-privacy laws, but said the school “fully investigates all reports of sexual misconduct and offers survivors resources on campus.”

Months later, struggling with depression and panic attacks, she told university officials what happened. A campus judicial board heard the case and found the man guilty of sexual misconduct. Officials suspended the man for a year, but after he appealed, they lowered his punishment to probation for a year, a $25 fine, and training on sexual misconduct.

The woman said she had no say in the appeal. Officials had interviewed her three times, questioning her story, but talked to the man just once. She was told the rape wasn’t “severe enough” to garner an expulsion. Campus police said the crime was too old to issue an alert.

“The university is active in victim-blaming and is an active participant in the rape culture. They would rather protect the rapist than the victim,” she said.

In the last year, Toledo officials say they have attempted to correct its culture by implementing a sexual-assault-education and prevention program that includes training staff members to help victims report the crime and guide them through a difficult process.

The university also issues crime alerts in neighborhoods where the majority of its students reside.


No crimes here

The Dispatch and the Student Press Law Center analyzed 12 years of Clery Act crime statistics involving nearly 1,800 schools with on-campus housing and found:

? Nearly 3 percent have reported that there has never been a crime of violence committed on their campuses. Not a single homicide, robbery, serious physical assault, or sexual assault.

? Nearly 16 percent reported that there has never been a physical altercation that could have resulted in serious harm.

? Nearly a fifth reported that there has never been a sexual assault, including Urbana University, where a student told police in 2012 she was gang-raped in a dorm room.

In any individual year, at least half of the colleges report zero violent crimes. Bowling Green State University, for example, said it had no serious physical assaults on campus in 2011 and 2012, even though its student-disciplinary board punished about 60 students for physical assault. Bowling Green leaders said that even a shoving match is considered “physical abuse” by the code of conduct, but that attacks rarely result in serious injury.

Experts on crime, and even the education department’s Mr. Moore, say that those scenarios seem unrealistic. “If you have a housing unit, it would be hard to believe that over any period of time, any number of years, you could actually be so lucky as to not have any sex crimes,” Mr. Moore said.

But those in charge of enforcing the law rarely check that colleges are reporting accurate numbers.

Federal education officials, who typically investigate only after a complaint has been filed, have audited only about six dozen of the nation’s 11,000 schools.

In Ohio, the Board of Regents only verifies that the schools have publicized their data on Oct. 1, when federal law requires reports be filed.

Last year’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act included provisions that resulted in the first major overhaul of Clery since the law was enacted. The changes include requirements for colleges to report statistics on dating and domestic violence and stalking incidents.

Although final regulations are not expected to be released until next month, the federal education department told colleges last year that they must make a good-faith effort to comply with the changes, and the annual reports distributed by colleges Wednesday should reflect this.


One is too many

It takes only one unreported incident for a college to violate the law.

At Urbana University, a female student reported she had been gang raped by three male students in March, 2012. A nine-page report from the Urbana city police department details the sexual assault that happened in a dorm.

After a three-month investigation, no criminal charges were filed, partly because of a reluctant victim. But regardless of the criminal outcome, the school was required to log the incident as a sexual assault.

Urbana University reported zero sexual assaults in 2012 — just as it had done the previous 11 years.

After the Columbus Dispatch and SPLC contacted the university about not reporting the case, school officials said it was an oversight and that they will review city police and campus records to ensure that nothing else has been missed.

Once that review is finished, they said they will update their crime statistics for the years 2011, 2012, and 2013 to reflect previously unreported crimes.

Campus-crime researcher Matthew Nobles said it’s worth questioning whether colleges that report zeros actually have zero crime.

“It seems unlikely that if you have 10 years of statistics with a university that has on-campus housing and it shows zeros throughout,” said Mr. Nobles, a professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas. “It’s very, very unlikely that literally nothing ever happens there that could be reportable.”

For sex offenses, the numbers reported by colleges are lower than even conservative estimates would predict.

U.S. Justice Department statistics say that over a nine-month school year, about 3 percent of women on any given campus will be a victim of sexual assault, but only 5 percent of that group will report the incident to police or a campus official.

Between 2001 and 2012, colleges reviewed by the Dispatch/?SPLC reported nearly 33,000 sexual assaults. Applying the national average to the number of female students who live on campuses, those colleges collectively would have been expected to report closer to 124,000 sexual assaults.

The national justice statistics aren’t a perfect predictor of Clery-countable sex offenses. But experts say they give a rough estimate, and the difference between what is reported and what might be expected is large enough to cause concern.


Paper tigers

No one is making sure on a wide scale that schools are honestly and correctly reporting statistics.

State auditors in California, New York, and Texas who review crime data reported by public colleges in their states have uncovered widespread misreporting, with confusion resulting in both over and under-reporting.

Most states don’t have programs to independently verify the numbers colleges report. In Ohio, the state’s college-crime guru scans school Web sites to see if they published their crime data online. As long as the numbers are there, he doesn’t question their accuracy.

“We have no authority to investigate,” said Rick Amweg, director of campus safety and security for the Ohio Board of Regents. “Holding their feet to the fire is the federal government’s job.”

But the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t regularly audit the accuracy of the statistics that are reported, either. In fact, a warning on its Web site says it “cannot vouch for the accuracy of the data reported here.”

Among the 13 four-year public universities in Ohio, two — Miami University and Ohio State University — have faced scrutiny, federal records show. A private college, Notre Dame College of Ohio, also came under review.

With more than 11,000 colleges that are required to comply with Clery, most escape scrutiny. Of those that draw attention — less than 0.006 percent of all colleges — few face serious sanctions.

In all, only a third of investigated colleges have been fined, for a total of $2.8 million since the department began auditing in the late 1990s. Schools can be fined $35,000 for each violation and in recent years, Mr. Moore said, “the percentage of cases that resulted in fines has been going up substantially.”

The fines have been repeatedly criticized by Congress and student activists, who say the threat of a $35,000 fine is not a deterrent for many colleges, especially those with multimillion-dollar endowments. Legislation in the U.S. House would increase the fine to $100,000 per violation; a Senate bill proposes $150,000.

Mike Wagner of the Columbus Dispatch and Sara Gregory of the Student Press Law Center contributed to this report.

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