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Bill requires crime statistics release

By Linda D'Angelo

A bill to require state institutions of higher education to report crime statistics and make those statistics accessible to current and prospective students and employees was presented to the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Education and Humanities on Tuesday.

This legislation echoes the Pennsylvania College Security Information Act which became law this past November due to the efforts of Connie and Howard Clery. Their daughter, Jeannie, was raped and murdered in her dormitory while attending Lehigh University. The Clerys, campaigning to make the legislation national, spoke at the hearing.

The bill would require all Massachusetts institutions of higher learning to "report to the state police, on an annual basis, crime statistics" and to "publish and distribute" individual yearly reports to students and employees. Comprehensive descriptions of the institute's security personnel, crime awareness programs, dormitory security measures, and alcohol and drug policies would be included.

The bill further requires the institutions to provide reports upon request to every person who submits an application for admission. In fact, institutions would have to "notify the applicant of the availability of this information" once the application had been received.

Since the MIT Campus Police has "a long tradition of being upfront with crime statistics," the passage of the bill will not necessitate a drastic change, according to Campus Police Chief Anne P. Glavin. It will become necessary to change the format of the reports, but their availability to students will remain the same.

Nonetheless, the bill "grew out of an aching need," Glavin said. Recognizing that many institutions are reluctant to release campus crime statistics, she described a "fear factor" or sentiment that such information should be suppressed.

But taken verbatim from the Pennsylvania bill, this legislation may not be "done in the best fashion," Glavin said. One problem involves discrepancies in determining the number of crimes committed against the college population. At some schools this number is restricted to crimes where students are victimized, while at MIT it includes the victimization of employees and guests. Since this term is a factor in calculation of crime rate, this definition problem could blur the facts, Glavin added.

Glavin also noted concern about the categorization of crimes. "Part-one offenses" group homicide, rape and assault in the same category as petty theft. She explained that this over-simplification is not only misleading but also lessens the effectiveness of the information since "awareness is what it's all about." One cannot really protect himself unless he is aware of his crime environment, aware of the specific crimes that are most prevalent, Glavin said.

The Chief felt strongly that statistics must be put into perspective to prevent them from being misconstrued. She asserted that institutions need to be straightforward with figures while at the same time putting them into context. By comparing statistics from year to year, it is possible to draw conclusions about basic trends in order to get a balanced view, Glavin noted.

The ultimate goal is a balance of "understanding, knowledge and perspective," she said. Rather than panic people, Glavin said she wanted people to be "as secure as we can be while realizing that there is a risk involved."

False sense of security

The idea of the college campus as a haven from crime, isolated from the rest of the world, can often lull students into a false sense of security, Glavin explained. This leaves Campus Police fighting a "convenience factor" where students feel the extra effort of locking doors isn't really necessary, according to Glavin.

Unfortunately, students don't realize the immediacy of crime until they themselves are victimized, Glavin said. This tendency of students to become "believers after the fact" can sometimes make crime prevention a hard sell, she explained, especially in the area of theft.

Glavin noted that students are more likely to take precautions with regards to personal safety, perhaps because this threat is "more meaningful to people." But even then, she regretted, it occasionally takes "something tragic to bring about awareness."

The Campus Police full-time Crime Prevention Unit is involved in a constant education process that begins with the freshman packet that all first-year students receive, Glavin said. For the next four years students have easy access to information through seminars, IAP events, and publications, she continued. In the event of a crime rash, such as the marked increase in bicycle theft this term, the Campus Police will distribute bulletins in order to keep the level of victimization low.

The underlying current in this education process, according to Glavin, is that students must play an active role in preventing campus crime. It is "not just the job of the police to keep the community safe," she explained. "We all have an investment toward that goal." The crime prevention unit is available to present information, but it remains for students to "not only absorb it, but also digest it and put it into practice," she said.

The future of the bill is still unclear, but according to Glavin it has already made some positive changes. "If the bill does nothing else but heighten awareness, [it] will have achieved its goal.... That's a big accomplishment in itself," she commented.