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Samah Pirzada: Campus safety statistics need context to give a complete picture

By Samah Pirzada

Apr. 25, 2014 12:00 am

Normally, high crime numbers are a bad thing. But when crimes are underreported, as is the case with sexual assault, UCLA’s high rates of reporting are something to be proud of.

Nonetheless, a proposal to account for reported crimes in college rankings could penalize UCLA for these numbers.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), along with several other legislators, sent a letter to U.S. News & World Report urging the publication to include a new category when ranking colleges: campus safety.

According to the letter, this category could include “violence statistics in annual Clery reports on campus crime statistics and information about institutions’ efforts to prevent and respond to incidents of campus sexual assault.”

Although having a measure of campus safety can be a useful tool for parents and students to judge institutions, using these numbers without context can be both unreliable and potentially risky because they don’t give an accurate picture of the campus environment. Furthermore, folding Clery numbers into college rankings creates incentives to underreport incidents of sexual assault and other violent crimes, as lower numbers will lead to a better ranking.

Including information and context as part of the rankings, but not factoring that into the ranking themselves, both reduces the risk of mishandling sexual assault and still accomplishes the goal of informing parents and potential students.

The lawmakers stress in the letter that parents put their child’s safety above all else when considering which institution to send them to, and they currently have no objective information to work with. However, the idea of “objective information” in this case does not exist because these are statistics that need context.

Savannah Badalich, the Undergraduate Students Association Council student wellness commissioner, said UCLA’s number of reported sexual violence instances, at 14, was already high in comparison to other colleges in the nation, but that the number was a positive thing. She added that numbers would need to be even higher to accurately portray the number of assaults that actually happen.

Nancy Greenstein, a UCPD spokeswoman, confirmed Badalich’s idea that more sexual assault reports is actually a good sign.

“Typically when you are rating something, if there is more crime that’s bad, if there is less crime that’s good,” Greenstein said. “When you’re looking at sexual assault, higher numbers are good because people are hesitant to report.”

UCLA’s high number of reported sexual assaults could deter parents, especially without the background information about campus resources to help survivors and what the numbers imply.

Resources available to assault survivors should include things such as counseling services, easy access to a hospital or clinic, rape kits and support groups. Listing these resources along with the college rankings would assist parents and give them a better view of the campus safety situation at the school.

Instead of encouraging colleges to be more forthcoming, trying to use reporting numbers or allegations of misconduct to rank a university can lead to even more mismanagement of sexual assault cases. The pressure to attain lower crime numbers can lead administrators to discourage survivors from reporting or otherwise fail to pass along reports of sexual assault, as was the case at Occidental College and the University of Southern California.

Skewed statistics have already given a misleading picture of our campus. In 2012, Business Insider named UCLA “Most Dangerous College in America” based on violent crime and property crime reports. The article raised several concerns about how the magazine analyzed its data and what data it should be looking at.

By including vague crime numbers in its rankings, U.S. News & World Report would face a similar problem.

In an ideal world, including campus safety information in college rankings would be a great idea. But this is not an ideal world.

Where accurate information is scarce, trying to fit it into a mathematical formula would severely backfire.

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