Campus Crimes Survey Angers HBCU Officials
ATLANTA — When administrators at Morehouse College here learned that the editors at a crime news Web site had dubbed the campus potentially one of the most dangerous places in America for students to pursue a higher education, they were mortified.
After all, this 3,000-student school logged no murders, no sexual assaults and only six simple assaults and 17 robberies on its campus from 1996 to 1998, the most recent three-year period for which federal crime statistics are available.
But Morehouse came in at No. 5 in a recent ranking of colleges and universities with the highest crime risk, according to APBnews.com, an independent Web site staffed by veteran journalists that is dedicated exclusively to headline-grabbing crimes.
The listing prompted Elisher Ferrell, Morehouse’s director of public relations, to fire off a letter to the Web site’s editors complaining that the rankings are “incorrect and misleading. The probability for violent crime at Morehouse is not high.”
Morehouse administrators aren’t the only ones rankled by the ranking. Officials at several other historically Black colleges and universities also complain they don’t belong on the ignoble list and have logged official complaints and rebuttals.
Several traditionally White colleges and universities that made the list also are upset. But HBCUs hold seven of the Top 10 slots in the most-dangerous ranking. And Black colleges dominate more than one-half of the spots in the Top 25.
That has led to sharp criticism not only from the colleges themselves but from national higher education experts who contend that the rankings are racist — not to mention inflammatory, misleading and mistaken.
“This is not much more than racial profiling, as far as we can tell,” says Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education. “It is enormously troubling that a disproportionate number of the colleges are historically Black.”
Hartle also complains that the Web site’s editors apparently failed to notice that the four historically Black colleges that lead the Top 5 most-dangerous list also all are clustered together in a single city — Atlanta.
The colleges — Morris Brown College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College — all are located in the same complex on the fringe of a marginal urban neighborhood in an effort to help restore its decline.
“I cannot imagine a solid methodology that would turn out four of the Top 5 schools in one city — on any grounds,” he says. “This survey was poorly conceived, poorly done and caused more harm than benefit.”
The survey’s authors, who had braced for a barrage of criticism even before posting the survey’s results and accompanying articles about it — defend their decision to publish the survey and its value.
But higher education experts say the controversy touches on more than just issues of race. It also raises nagging questions about everything from institutions’ willingness to come clean about campus crime to the survey’s methodology to the intrinsic value of such rankings to the public.
“This simply plays on people’s fears of being victims of violent crime,” Hartle complains. “It’s just one more ranking that provides information of suspect validity and usefulness to the general public.”
At the heart of the brouhaha is how APBnews.com conducted its specially commissioned study to arrive at the rankings. Indeed, Web site editors passed over the traditional source for campus crime: statistics reported annually to the FBI.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently released national campus crime statistics. But APBnews.com, in an article on its survey, complained that those figures “are more than a year old when they are released.”
It contracted with a company called Crimes Against Persons Index Inc. to predict the risk of becoming the victim of a violent crime — murder, rape or robbery — at 1,497 public and private four-year colleges and universities.
“The system does not measure actual crime rates but rather estimates the risk of crime for the coming year through a sophisticated computer model that compares socioeconomic data to past reports of actual crime,” APBnews.com officials say.
Factors considered include household income, family structure, migration patterns, housing values and average level of education. The results “predict crime much as a meteorologist would use barometric pressure maps to predict storms.”
APBnews.com officials note that the Pennsylvania-based CAP Index uses the same method to provide neighborhood crime risk assessments to clients that include the U.S. Department of Justice, Bank of America, Exxon and McDonalds.
But critics blast that method as flawed when it comes to assessing risk on college and university campuses, saying that it obviously puts higher education institutions in large urban settings at a huge disadvantage.
“They made every university in a metropolitan area look bad and every campus in a small town look good,” says Charles Rummery, chief of police at Wichita State University in Kansas, which ranked No. 244 in the campus crime survey.
“I tell parents you can’t rely on statistics,” he adds. “You can’t really compare universities because we’re all so different.”
To be sure, the colleges that made the Web site’s ranking of the schools with the lowest risk for violent crimes are situated in rural areas in states such as Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Hartle complains that the rankings are skewed because schools’ rankings are based not only on crimes and socioeconomic conditions on campus but on those of surrounding neighborhoods within a 3-mile radius.
“It’s the atom bomb approach to measuring crime on campus,” he says. “If you are a campus located in a troubled neighborhood, you are in trouble — even though the college itself may be a beacon of tranquility.
So in the case of New York University, for instance, the crime risk was calculated based on a geographic swath that took in everything from Central Park to portions of Brooklyn and even Columbia University, Hartle says.
Morehouse officials, in a letter to APBnews.com editors challenging the rankings, told the new service that while its “attempt to provide the public with vital crime information and statistics is commendable, the process used is not appropriate.
“The report is inaccurate and misleading, as it does not consider actual crime that takes place within the college campuses or crimes that involve students within those campuses,” college officials wrote in their letter of complaint.
“The probability for violent crime on the Morehouse campus in not high,” they wrote. “Simply because a college is located in an area that is economically disadvantaged does not mean that the students are at a great risk of personal crime.
“Characteristics such as poverty, unemployment, the percentage of homeowners and similar variables are correlated with crime,” college officials wrote. “However, there are mitigating variables to consider when trying to predict victimization based on neighborhood characteristics. For example, when residents have deep ties to the community, regardless of income, they are more likely to be law-abiding.”
“It’s bogus,” broods Karon Daniel, a spokeswoman for Morris Brown College in Atlanta, which garnered the No. 1 spot in APBnews.com’s high-risk-for-crime ranking. “We reject it. It is a misapplication of data.”
Others complain that the rankings do not take into account the extraordinary lengths to which many colleges and universities have gone to in recent years to allay parents, students and the public’s fears about campus crime.
“In the last 20 years, college presidents, administrators and trustees have become much more aware of the crime issue and parents’ concerns about it and have devoted an enormous amount of time, energy and money to minimize it,” Hartle says.
“The problem with this ranking is that it basically says, whatever a college does to combat crime — extra lighting, campus escorts, added security — doesn’t matter,” Hartle says. “This ranking gives people information that is misleading.
“The evidence is clear and unambiguous that college campuses are safer than surrounding neighborhoods because of those extra safeguards,” he adds. “The most common crimes on campus today are burglary and larceny — not violent crimes.”
Still, as APBnews.com’s editors noted in a story detailing their reasons for publishing the survey, colleges and universities in the past haven’t had a very good reputation when it comes to being forthcoming about crime on their campuses.
Parents, activists and even some U.S. Congressmen have complained in the past about colleges concealing some crimes or misrepresenting statistics. A 1997 audit by the General Accounting Office found the vast majority reported campus crimes incorrectly.
The Campus Security Act of 1990 was designed to standardize schools’ crime reporting and correct some of those deficiencies. But critics contend some colleges and universities still have managed to find loopholes in the reporting requirements.
For instance, Congress last year closed a loophole that let urban colleges and universities off the hook when it came to reporting crimes that occurred on city-owned streets and sidewalks that run through campuses or adjacent to them.
Myra Kodner of Security on Campus, a national higher education safety advocacy group, told The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., that APBnews.com’s survey “could be a useful tool” for parents and students choosing what college to attend.
“But we want to stress it should not be your only one,” Kodner told the newspaper. “You can always make numbers say what you want them to say.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com