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College Settles on Crime Reporting

College Settles on Crime Reporting
June 19, 2009

Dominican College in New York has agreed to pay $20,000 in a settlement with the state’s attorney general over charges that the private institution misreported statistics related to sexual assaults on its campus.

According to a statement released by the office of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, an investigation into Dominican’s crime statistics revealed that “over the course of several years, Dominican had erroneously reported the number of crimes that occurred on campus in their student handbook” and that “Dominican did not have adequate procedures in place to ensure accurate reporting.” The settlement language highlights Dominican's violations of state fraud law and makes clear the agreement is being set in place to avoid litigation. The involvement of Cuomo will be familiar -- and depending on their perspective, unwelcome -- to many officials in higher education, given the New York politician's aggressive scrutiny of higher education practices in such areas as student loans and study abroad.

Phil Semprevivo, a lawyer representing the private college of about 2,000 students, said that the reporting errors were found only in student handbooks – never in the statistics filed with the federal government – and that Dominican officials “corrected those errors on their own” absent pressure from Cuomo’s investigation. The errors were “inadvertent,” Semprevivo said, emphasizing that “there was no intent found by the attorney general.”

Nonetheless, Cuomo suggested in his prepared statement that errors like Dominican’s are not to be taken lightly: “When a college underreports crime statistics they put their students at risk. Students and their families deserve an honest assessment of any potential dangers on campus, in order to protect themselves and make informed decisions regarding their own safety,” he said.

Cuomo’s investigation grew from a complaint by Gloria Allred, lawyer for the mother of a former Dominican student -- Megan Wright -- who was sexually assaulted on the campus in 2006 and later committed suicide. Allred filed a federal lawsuit against the college in 2008, which is still ongoing, and called on the attorney general to investigate the college's crime statistics after identifying a suspicious lack of reported sexual assaults during the time Wright was a student.

In a statement responding to Cuomo's settlement with Dominican, Allred said that the “actions and inactions of Dominican College” after Wright reported the assault “led to her untimely death."

Cuomo’s assertiveness, said Jonathan Kassa, executive director of Security on Campus, an advocacy group on campus crime issues, is reassuring proof that someone is taking sexual violence seriously -- something he hopes will encourage more reports and, consequently, more action on behalf of victims.

In addition to the $20,000 fine, Cuomo has instructed that Dominican make several changes to its crime reporting procedures -- changes Semprevivo said are already underway:

  • Require all employees responsible for campus security to attend a training program regarding crime reporting issues including the classification and definition of crimes, the collection of crime reports, timely warning requirements and annual disclosure requirements.
  • Designate officials to oversee and coordinate the collection of all campus crime reports to ensure that they are properly categorized and maintained to create an accurate crime report.
  • Designate officials to ensure that crime statistics are accurately published in the annual campus crime report.
  • Designate an official who is responsible for ensuring that grievance procedures are in place for students.

Kassa said these mandatory administrative changes -- which promote a kind of top-down self-governance of crime reporting procedures -- are part of the solution, but this “landmark” settlement might also encourage change from the ground up by way of more victims stepping forward and breaking a culture of silence.

“Victims have felt that they’re not listened to,” he said. “It’s a very strong signal that victims will be listened to and something will be done about it. We’re not just talking about using the state fraud laws as strategy [to require accurate reporting], but it extends to the students and families … the confidence and opportunity to actually take part in holding colleges accountable.”

In addition to fining Domincan, Cuomo also issued a letter last week to every college in the state of New York urging a prompt review of all crime reporting procedures and warning that “[f]ailure to report campus crime statistics accurately -- including the number, location or nature of reported crimes -- may also constitute fraud under New York State law.”

That’s something colleges should be taking seriously, Kassa said, because Dominican is by no means alone in its failure to promote transparent crime reporting.

“We know that it is not an isolated incident,” he said. “We are aware from our own victim advocacy over the past two decades that crime statistics are not reported properly, are willing misrepresented.”

Certainly there are many schools that do all they can and come forward with accurate numbers, he continued, but there will always be mistakes. (Though Semprevivo said Dominican’s misreporting was in fact accidental, Allred suggests otherwise: “These findings are extremely significant in that they confirm our allegation that for a number of years Dominican continuously, consistently and recklessly failed to comply with the Clery Act,” she said in a statement.)

Kassa sees in this settlement an opportunity for colleges in and outside New York to take seriously how they handle crime and violence on their campuses. He also, though, sees opportunity for more action from the top:

“I would hope that the Department of Education has taken notice of this case,” he said. “They certainly have the ability, and let’s hope they have the willingness, to investigate.”

 

 

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