MISSOULA — Nearly 110 forcible sexual assaults were reported on Montana college campuses between 2002 and 2012, with 63 of them taking place at Montana State University, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
Some say numbers stand on their own — that some universities simply have more crime.
But others say the numbers reflect a school’s culture of reporting more than actual crime.
“We want the reports, not the data,” said MSU Police Chief Robert Putzke. “Only through reporting can we address the issue. We’re not at all shy about our numbers. The more we bring this topic to the forefront, the more orientation we do, the more reports we should get — and that’s a good thing.”
The statistics on campus crime are submitted annually by all postsecondary institutions that participate in federal student aid programs. Required by the Clery Act, the reports reveal comparable data from one university to the next.
Getting more complex
“It was a law intended to give the average consumer of colleges a way to gauge the safety of the campuses,” Putzke said. “It’s extremely complex and it gets more complex with each legislative session.”
According to the figures, MSU received 63 sexual-assault reports between 2002 and 2012. UM handled 31 reports.
The numbers reflect only reports and not arrests or convictions. Given that the reporting policies are designed to be the same from campus to campus, some believe the numbers stand on their own.
“The Department of Education has pretty clear guidelines and regulations regarding what should and what should not be reported,” said Claudia Eccles, associate legal counsel at UM. “As to why the numbers are different between campuses? It’s because the number of incidents are different. I can’t think of any other reason.”
The Clery Act requires schools to report crimes across nine categories, including sexual assault, homicide, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft and arson.
The crimes are defined by the DOE’s “Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting.” And while the Clery Act is firm on what must be reported, there are nuances, and some believe they reflect the disparity in numbers.
Those nuances may include whether reports are taken by campus police or through a municipal agency, along with a school’s process for collecting and passing reports on to a central database for listing.
They also may be as simple as a university’s “culture of reporting,” something MSU officials say they’ve worked on over the past decade.
That culture wasn’t always present at UM, and drew the attention of the Department of Justice, which found that a culture of intimidation and harassment existed at UM, making it difficult for victims to report sexual assault.
The school said it is taking strides to address the issue.
School officials — including UM legal counsel Lucy France — expect to see the university’s reported cases increase.
That’s how the higher numbers reported by MSU are viewed by Putzke and Tracy Ellig, executive director of communications. They believe the figures reflect the university’s open and established reporting policy and not a higher rate of crime.
“We have worked very hard to build the infrastructure to make sure they do report,” Ellig said. “On these (Clery) numbers, MSU is not shy about sharing them.”
Sexual assaults are the most underreported crime, Putzke said.
Some experts believe that just one in 10 incidents ever reaches police or school administrators.
Others believe it’s closer to 50 percent. But either way, Putzke said, the easier a university makes it for a student to report, the better off the system becomes.
Both UM and MSU, he believes, will benefit from the results.
“The more we bring this issue to the forefront, the more we’ll see our numbers increase,” Putzke said. “We feel very strongly on our campus that the more informed we make the community, the better it can protect itself. It’s a key tenet in how we go about our business.”
Other nuances may distort the numbers, some believe.
Ellig noted that many campuses contract with local police departments. Unlike campus law enforcement agencies, municipal police aren’t regulated by the Clery Act, he said.
While the Clery Act calls for the inclusion of municipal police reports involving incidents on campus, Ellig said that may not always happen.
“If there is a campus that’s subcontracting, there could be incidents happening that aren’t getting into Clery data,” he said.
To prevent that, Putzke said MSU and the Bozeman Police Department are collaborating to make sure off-campus offenses are in the Clery database.
The MSU police department includes 20 full-time and five part-time officers. The MSU department has jurisdiction over misdemeanor and felony crimes reported on campus, Putzke said.
He said this arrangement ensures that all campus incidents are entered into the Clery database.
The arrangement is different between UM’s Office of Public Safety and the Missoula Police Department.
While the university investigates felony property crimes on campus — burglaries and thefts — it does not handle sexual assaults.
“What we do with respect to crimes committed on campus, they (Office of Public Safety) take the stat for it — document that it occurred in their jurisdiction,” said Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir. “We take the case over and count it as an agency assist.”
Muir said crime reports generated off campus but in UM-affiliated locations, such as a sorority or fraternity, are passed by MPD to UM for Clery reporting.
“Ever since Clery Act requirements have started, we’ve worked with the university to provide them with the incident date, the case number and type of incident, for any crimes related to university connected properties,” Muir said. “They include those in their Clery statistics.”
Officials at both universities believe the practices now in place are effective.
Putzke has seen more resources go to the issue of sexual assault, and both schools have created programs to address the issue. He added that UM and MSU are working more collaboratively, including in their efforts to facilitate reporting, which UM officials confirmed over the past few weeks.
The efforts will likely stand out in the Clery report, appearing higher than at other universities.
“It’s a problem we’re both focused on,” Putzke said. “Our administrations are being really supportive in giving the resources down to the next level to identify this problem and address it.”