Campus Crime: What Does it Mean?

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Colleges and universities across Pennsylvania may soon have to provide some context for the crime statistics they provide to prospective students and their parents. State education officials are considering changes to the crime-disclosure law that would require schools to define exactly what they consider to be their campus boundaries.

The Philadelphia Inquirer recentlycriticized Penn for not counting all crimes committed in the large area patrolled by University Police when compiling the campus crime profile given to students and parents. In it, police listed 18 robberies “on campus” in 1995, but the Inquirer noted that 181 robberies were reported in the patrol-area that year — and that some of them occurred in places like the 3401 Cafe food court, just across Walnut Street from Van Pelt Library. The Pennsylvania Auditor General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Education were reviewing the mattter as of last month.

But University officials insist they’ve been following the letter of the law in reporting crime information to the public and to state and Federal authorities. “We don’t make the rules up; we’re trying as best as we can to comply with the rules,” says Thomas Seamon, managing director of Penn’s Division of Public Safety. “If the regulations change at all, by anybody, we will obviously adhere to the regulations.”

Seamon explains that the state provides no definition of a campus, so Penn uses the Federal definition: “Any building or property owned or controlled by the institution of higher education within the same reasonably contiguous geographic area and used by the institution in direct support of, or related to its educational purposes; or any building or property owned or controlled by student organizations recognized by the institution.” The food court on Walnut Street does not fit that definition, though it’s just yards down from the Franklin Building, which does. Seamon says he thinks that when the Federal crime-disclosure law was put together, legislators probably weren’t thinking of an urban campus like Penn, but one more like Villanova University, in Philadelphia’s western suburbs, “where they have all the private property of the university as a contiguous place with a fence around it. It does not have public streets coming through it.”

Penn’s patrol-area encompasses more than 100 square blocks and includes the public streets and sidewalks that intersect and surround the campus. But those patrols are intended to supplement, not replace, the efforts of Philadelphia police, college officials explain.

Kenneth Wildes, the University’s director of communications, says, “The Inquirer takes the view that if we patrol the streets, we should include them as our campus, but that’s not in the law. We get penalized for being good citizens.”

Campus police, Seamon notes, already keep a log with every incident recorded, and any citizen can ask to see it. In addition, The Daily Pennsylvanian and Almanac, the faculty/staff newsletter, routinely list all crimes.

Campus safety has been a particular concern since last fall, when a rash of crimes occurred, including the shooting and wounding of a Penn senior, Patrick Leroy, and the fatal stabbing of Dr. Vladimir Sled, a research associate in biochemistry and biophysics. (The three suspects in Leroy’s shooting have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. Two suspects in Sled’s stabbing have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial; a preliminary hearing scheduled last month for a third suspect was postponed.) In response to those and other incidents, the University has taken a number of steps — some quite costly — to increase security on and around campus.

The proposed changes to state regulations must go through a lengthy review process, which could take months, before being adopted. Seamon says that he agrees with the idea of making crime statistics more useful, but adds: “What I do not agree with is some media outlets using Penn as a whipping boy to make a point to the Federal Government that the system ought to be changed.”

A bill introduced recently in Congress, but unrelated to Pennsylvania’s proposed regulations, also would expand the requirements for reporting campus crime. Among other things, it would require colleges and universities to report the number of liquor, drug, and weapons violations reported to campus authorities, and to release the names of students accused of crimes to the public.

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