WNC CONFIDENTIAL: Your key to hard-to-find public information and records.

Welcome to WNC CONFIDENTIAL, a Carolina Public Press feature about official secrets and public disclosures — all from, about or relating to the mountain region. Every other Thursday, we’ll give you the key to recent revelations and put hard-to-find records at your fingertips.

Also in this installment: Tracking hate crimes; Occupy Asheville e-mails released; eugenics task force priorities; questions for Cashiers travel, tourism group

Law offers insight into reported campus crime

On the morning of Dec. 13, an armed man robbed the State Employees’ Credit Union just across the street from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. Within an hour-and-a-half, the campus was on lockdown as law officers searched for suspects. A few hours later, the officers arrested a 21-year-old WCU student at his apartment and charged him with the crime.

Such incidents don’t always end so smoothly, but given the specter of violent crimes on and near college campuses, they invariably make headlines, at least for a while. But there are a myriad of less-publicized crimes that can also threaten students’ well-being.

That’s why, when comparison-shopping colleges, it might pay off to check out the numbers that schools rarely tout in their promotional literature: campus crime statistics.

The data is readily available, for free, thanks to the Clery Act, a piece of landmark campus-safety legislation enacted in 1990.

The law requires all institutions of higher learning that receive federal funds to report annual campus crime data to their students, prospective students, employees and the U.S. Department of Education. Colleges and universities list everything from assaults and robberies to weapons, drug and alcohol violations, as reported by their students, campus and municipal police forces, and other sources like campus counseling centers.

The numbers, experts caution, are often inconsistently (and sometimes insufficiently) gathered and reported. Still, the annual reports can provide a baseline from which individual schools can begin to assess their crime problems and compare them to others’.

The department’s latest comprehensive report, which covers calendar year 2010 and the two prior years, was issued in October. The crime stats for all applicable N.C. campuses are available here. (Note that each of the pages listed at the site has tabs that link to additional school-specific data, including reported numbers of on-campus hate crimes, arrests and disciplinary actions.)

The Clery Act reporting makes it relatively easy to review and compare the basic data. For example, here are some of the numbers as reported by Western North Carolina’s three largest campuses in 2010:

  • Appalachian State University, with 16,968 students, reported three sex offenses, 21 burglaries and 236 arrests for alcohol and drug violations.
  • Western Carolina University, with 9,429 students, reported five sex offenses, 38 burglaries and 93 arrests for alcohol and drug violations.
  • The University of North Carolina at Asheville, with 3,897 students, reported three sex offenses, 13 burglaries and 17 arrests for alcohol and drug violations.

When surveying the reports, it’s important to keep in mind a few caveats and clarifications.

To begin with, the numbers represent crimes that were reported on and near these campuses, but don’t indicate how many of those reports resulted in confirmations or prosecutions by law enforcement.

In addition, campus crime data is often categorized and reported using different criteria at different schools, so it’s difficult to make definitive comparisons with these reports.

On various campuses, “There is a widespread misunderstanding about the scope of who is responsible for reporting a Clery offense and under what circumstances,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit research and legal-assistance group based in Arlington, Va. The center helps college journalists obtain and publish data on campus crimes, among other matters.

“It is often mistakenly believed (by campus administrators) that a crime doesn’t count for Clery Act purposes unless a campus police department responds to it,” LoMonte told Carolina Public Press last week. “That’s wrong under U.S. Department of Education rules. The department has said that a crime counts even if it’s never brought to the attention of the police, as long as it’s brought to the attention of someone on campus with significant responsibility for safety.”

That misunderstanding, LoMonte said, causes “a big potential area for variation” in what at first glance looks like cut-and-dried crime stats.

What’s more, some key areas of campus crime are notoriously underreported by the victims themselves. “The numbers are only as good as the victims’ reporting, so if victims don’t feel comfortable reporting, then the numbers are going to be deceptively low,” LoMonte said. “The school only has to disclose things that are brought to its attention.”

The numbers on sexual offenses are especially lacking, according to researchers like Amy Page, an associate professor of sociology at Appalachian State University who studies sexual violence and rape reporting.

Even the largest schools in WNC report only a handful of sexual offenses each year, which seems significantly out of sync with what studies show about sex crimes on campuses.

“The problem is that, especially with something like sexual assault, it’s vastly underreported anyway, regardless of whether it’s on a campus or not,” Page said.

Page cited research including a major 2005 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, “Sexual Assault on Campus: What Colleges and Universities are Doing About It.” [PDF] The study found that while “one in five women experiences rape” during her college years, “less than 5 percent of completed and attempted rapes of college students are brought to the attention of campus authorities and/or law enforcement.”

Given the prevalence of such crimes, “We should expect to see way higher numbers [of sexual offenses] than what we’re seeing reported,” Page said. “You actually want to see higher numbers at a school, which seems counter-intuitive. Because it’s not that these offenses are necessarily happening more, but that you have a campus that takes the issue seriously and the students feel more comfortable reporting it because they know it will be taken seriously.

“As a parent, that’s what I want to see when I’m evaluating a school, but it’s hard to get parents to understand that when they look at the raw numbers,” Page concluded.

New FBI report documents reported WNC hate crimes

The FBI recently released its annual roundup of hate crime statistics, covering such crimes as reported throughout the nation in calendar year 2010. A page of North Carolina data lists the numbers of reported hate crimes logged by specific local law enforcement agencies, and offers additional breakdowns on the apparent “bias motivation” behind each crime (such factors include the race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability of the victim).

To cite a few examples: Of the eight hate crimes reported in Asheville, five were race-based and three were religion-based. Of the two reported in Sylva, one was classified as race-based and one as ethnicity-based. And all three hate crimes reported in Black Mountain were categorized as race-based. As reported in the statistics, Rutherford County was the only Western North Carolina location to have reported a hate crime related to sexual orientation.

Asheville city staff release Occupy Asheville e-mails

Through a public records request, the Mountain Xpress obtained a trove of e-mails by city of Asheville staffers that discuss Occupy Asheville, a local manifestation of the Occupy movement. Activists with the effort have camped out at spots around downtown, with many facing arrest at various points in the past few months.

The 270 emails the city of Asheville released to Mountain Xpress are among the 2,000 city staff estimate were written and included something about Occupy Asheville. Additional releases might be forthcoming, the weekly publication has reported.

Xpress posted all of the messages released so far online, in a searchable database, along with a summary of what the records revealed.

Eugenics panel: victim compensation is top priority

North Carolina’s Eugenics Compensation Task Force met again on Dec. 6, pinning down plans for its final report, which is due Feb. 1, 2012. According to an official summary of the meeting, the five-member panel “agreed that lump-sum financial compensation (of surviving sterilization victims) was the No. 1 priority,” followed by provision of mental health services to victims and then funds for a traveling educational exhibit about the history of eugenics in the state. The amount of compensation has not been determined, the summary said.

Three reports on these priorities were delivered by members of the task force. [PDF]

In news reports following the meeting, the Charlotte Observer shared victim testimony, and the New York Times offered an in-depth piece of its own, complete with a cache of documents concerning particular cases and the program of involuntary sterilizations in North Carolina.

Jackson County leaders push for travel, tourism group information

Jackson County leaders have been frustrated in their efforts to track spending by the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority, which receives marketing funds from the county. Though it’s a quasi-governmental body, the authority hasn’t provided notes of its meetings or detailed records of its expenditures, the Smoky Mountain News reported on Nov. 16.

Mark Jones, who sits on both the Cashiers tourism board and Jackson’s county commission, recently provided some details about the expenditures, according to a Dec. 7 Smoky Mountain News follow-up.

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Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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