The rape and murder of a Lehigh University sophomore, Jeanne Clery, drew national attention in 1986. Clery’s parents said that if they had known about the high levels of crime on the campus, they would have been able to make a better decision about whether or not to send their daughter to the school.
The Clery’s advocated for legislation requiring all colleges and universities that received government funding–thus every school that accepts federal financial aid money–to publish annual crime reports documenting the exact number and types of crime that have occurred on or near their campus(es). The Clery Act was signed into law in 1990.
Last year, a team of investigative reporters at The College VOICE published an article documenting how Mercer had been filing inaccurate crime reports for years. Errors included combining the data from separate campuses, failing to report crimes that had taken place in areas adjacent to the campus (required under the Act), publishing reports late and not including data available through local law enforcement.
Each infraction is punishable by a fine of $27,500 from the Department of Education (DOE). Based on the number of years when inaccurate filings were made, Mercer could be facing fines of at least $200,000. Though, to date, the case has not been pursued. Due to the current governmental shutdown representatives from the Department of Education could not be reached for comment before this article went to press.
Mercer’s President, Dr. Patricia Donohue, told The VOICE in a recent interview, that the college “does not expect to have any penalties because of the reporting. To the best of my knowledge we are properly reporting the statistics.”
When asked about the previous Clery inaccuracies Donohue told The VOICE: “last year’s [problem] was not just whether we interpreted [Clery] incorrectly. It was also the format in which the police department gave us the queries we asked…after ferreting out the fine points of that definition I believe we have it as finely tuned as we were told it could be last year.”
Lt. Mark Kieffer at the Trenton Police Department said “no comment” was the official response to Donohue’s statement that the format of the data received from the police department was in some part responsible for the inaccurately reported information.
This year, when the annual crime reports were posted on October 1, The VOICE evaluated what changes, if any, Mercer has made in its crime reporting.
For 2012 Mercer has filed its crime reports on time. The college also filed separate documents for the different campuses as required. The recorded data matches police reports obtained from local law enforcement. The main campus had no serious crimes reported, while the Trenton campus had three robberies.
The first robbery was a purse-snatching that occurred on a Saturday morning, the second incident occurred on a Sunday afternoon and involved a weapon.
“Neither incident involved any students or faculty personnel,” Mercer’s Chief Security Officer Michael Flaherty noted, “not that that makes a difference for the victim.”
On the other hand, the college has not yet amended the years of inaccurate data that are still posted on both the Department of Education and the college’s websites. Without these corrections, the college remains in danger of receiving substantial fines. (To date, the largest fines applied for Clery Act non compliance –$600,000– are those facing Penn State for its non-reporting of the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault cases.)
Officer Flaherty, when asked what the college has done to ensure Clery compliance, told The VOICE that he and several other security staffers have received Clery training in the past. He emphasized the goal of his department was preventing and reducing crime on campus.
When asked about the previous inaccurate filings, Flaherty said: “I can’t speak about the interpretation because that was done by your reporter, the newspaper took into account crimes that occurred on private property. According to Clery those aren’t Clery reportable crimes because they didn’t occur in our geographical perimeter.”
According to several reporters who were on staff at the time, the VOICE followed typical investigative procedure and worked closely with the Trenton Police Department’s statistician to match incidents against arrest reports to ensure that every crime noted had occurred either in a campus space or on the streets adjacent to campus property, not in private buildings. The VOICE reporters –who ultimately won three different national journalism awards for their work– read through more than sixty pages of crime statistics covering the precise geographical location occupied by the college (downloadable copies are posted at left below).
As Mercer expands its campus geography in the downtown Trenton area, filing accurate reports will become a more complex task. New parking lots, rented or renovated spaces, even temporary use of property are all zones that the college will responsible for covering.
Among those crimes omitted from the 2011 report were arrests made at the Neon Bar that sits across the street from the college. The arrests were made on the sidewalks, not in the bar itself. These crimes are required to be in the annual filings, but were not.
When asked what effect it has when colleges do not comply with the Clery Act, Abigail Boyer, the Assistant Executive Director for Program Outreach and Education at The Clery Center told The VOICE: “Training is crucial. It is difficult for schools to be compliant if they don’t have an understanding of the law.”
Boyer went on to explain that colleges are sometimes reluctant to comply in part because they fear increased education about crime on campus and more accurate reporting will cause their numbers to go up.
Attorney Adam Goldstein at the Student Press Law Center concurs with Boyer’s assessment. He told The VOICE in a recent phone interview: “In regards to why the college would be so reluctant to report numbers accurately: “To the extent that this is not just sheer incompetence, it’s that administrators on urban campuses don’t want their numbers to look higher than campuses in rural areas like Idaho.”
The Times of Trenton recently reported an overall drop in crime at college campuses in the area. Though Mercer’s number of crimes would appear to have increased this year, this is only a matter of the school filing accurate reports this time around.
Compared to the overall level of crime in our area, particularly surrounding the Trenton campus, Mercer’s on-campus crime rates are low
Times of Trenton reporter Jon Offredo noted that sex crimes were still high on college campuses in our area, particularly at Princeton. Mercer, however, has the lowest sex crimes rates of any of the area colleges. Looking over the actual crime records from the last ten years, Mercer has not had a single reported sex crime in that time.
[NOTE: This article was changed after initial posting to include links to the Dept. of Education data pages for Mercer’s current Clery data.]