A Fine Line
UNT issued no alert to students when a rape was reported at this fraternity house. Police investigated, but no one was prosecuted. (Photo by Taylor Timmons)
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
At UNT, fewer crime alerts don’t mean less danger.
By TAYLOR TIMMINS
The two rapes were reported in locations barely 60 feet apart, one in a University of North Texas fraternity house, the other in an apartment across the small parking lot. But as far as federal campus-crime reporting law is concerned, the second rape complaint might as well have happened in another country.
Because the first sexual assault case was reported to have happened in a frat house, it was investigated by campus police, reported to the federal government, and ultimately disclosed to students. But students were never told about the second alleged rape, no less brutal, because it was investigated by Denton police and not campus cops.
Problematic wording of the Clery Act, the federal law that requires colleges to disclose campus crime information and issue alerts when students are in danger, let UNT ignore the second rape — and many other crimes that happened right on the edge of its campus. But UNT also has failed to issue crime alerts on five other reported rapes since 2001 — crimes that the college did report to the federal government — because college officials decided that the perpetrators of those “date rapes” posed no danger to other students.
The university’s handling of those sexual assault alerts, though legal, made the campus look safer than some believe it is.
Chris Lippincott, a spokesman for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said it makes little sense to treat acquaintance rapes as less dangerous than other sexual assaults. “When people think of the word ‘rapist,’ it conjures up an image of a man in a ski mask wielding a gun, hiding in a parking lot,’’ he said. And yet “three-fourths of all sexual assaults are date or acquaintance rapes, and the weapon used is trust.”
“Declaring that there is no need to report date rapes will dramatically reduce the number of assaults in the [annual] reports,” he said. It’s “a dangerous way to cut those numbers. Those assaults are serious crimes. If a student were killed by his or her roommate or classmate, the university would be required to report it as a violent crime. That the attacker was known shouldn’t undercut the value of the crime. The public ought to know about it.’’
UNT police acknowledge they do not issue crime alerts for every rape. In some cases, police said, they decided the accused assailant posed no threat to anyone other than his accuser. In other cases, they said they didn’t find out about the assault allegations until long after they were reported to others. In 2001, for example, two of the four rapes UNT reported to the federal government were reported to student housing authorities but not to police. Campus police didn’t learn of them until the end of the year when they prepared their report for Clery.
“Our department had no information regarding these two alleged sexual assaults other than the fact that they were reported to [student housing],’’ said UNT police Chief Ed Reynolds. “It was made clear the victim did not want to report the incident. Therefore, we had nothing to investigate.’’
One rape allegation that UNT police did investigate was reported on Sept. 13, 2002, at the Phi Kappa Sigma house at 919 Maple St. A woman attending a frat party told police that a pledge asked her to help him find something in a laundry room. Once inside, the man began fondling the woman. When she resisted, she said, he threw her around, pinned her to a washing machine, stripped her pants off, and assaulted her. Another fraternity member heard the woman’s screams and helped the woman kick her assailant off. According to police records, when the frat house Good Samaritan asked the other student what he was doing, he responded: “Nothing. She wanted it.’’
Though police investigated that assault and included it in the required statistical report and on a daily crime log available for students to inspect, they did not issue a crime alert warning the campus about a possible sexual predator. Records released by UNT police did not clearly state whether there had been an arrest or a charge filed in the case, but listed it as having been “cleared by other means.” That phrase can mean many things, but it indicates that there was no conviction.
“We are required to evaluate each case individually on its merits to determine whether a notice should be issued. As required by Clery, the institution issues timely warnings when the crime represents a serious or continuing threat to students and employees,” Reynolds said. Despite the fact that no alerts were issued in connection with date rape complaints, the police chief said that the university believes such assaults are dangerous offenses. He did not respond to phone calls and e-mails requesting comment on how police determined that none of the acquaintance rape allegations merited campus-wide alerts.
Two years after the frat-house report, in an apartment at 910 W. Eagle St., about a block from campus, another young woman reported that she had been raped three times in her bedroom by a former North Texas student after a night of partying. But this time, Denton police, instead of the campus cops, responded to the call. Denton police said they referred the case to the district attorney’s office, and that the grand jury subsequently returned a no-bill.
That incident was one of scores of violent crimes reported on the periphery of the UNT campus that were never made public by university officials because they took place on private property. Reynolds said he knew nothing about the rape complaint in the apartment complex near the frat house until told by a reporter.
Denton police records, obtained under Texas public information laws, show that at least one murder, four sexual assaults, seven aggravated assaults, and four robberies have taken place since 2001 within a block of UNT’s campus — all crimes that, since they happened outside campus boundaries, students were never alerted to.
The Clery Act, named after a Lehigh University student who was raped and killed in her dormitory room in 1986, requires all colleges and universities that receive federal funds to publicly chronicle — in daily logs, alerts, and statistical reports — crimes that occur on campus, in adjacent public areas and on some non-campus properties such as fraternity and sorority houses. But crimes that take place on other private property — even if it is adjacent to the university and used primarily by students — are not required to be reported under the act.
Universities that violate the law can be fined up to $27,500 per incident, but such fines are rare. However, after UNT and SMU investigative journalism students in December reported on widespread under-reporting of campus crimes (“Insecurity on Campus,” Dec. 1, 2004), a federal education official promised an investigation. Officials at several Texas universities said they have not heard of any action being taken in connection with such an investigation; several other colleges did not return reporters’ phone calls.
Although the Clery Act requires universities to alert students to dangers, vague language in the law allows universities great latitude in deciding what crimes pose a threat. In this case, by strictly interpreting the law, UNT has able to reduce the total number of sexual assaults included in its annual reports by nearly a third since 2001.
“Establishing a practical, universal definition for the greater campus community has proven difficult, especially given the differences between schools’’ said S. Daniel Carter, the senior vice president of Security On Campus, the nonprofit organization founded by Jeanne Clery’s parents. “It would probably be difficult to even get people in a single campus community to agree on exactly what should be covered, much less to determine how to compare schools in different types of environments.’’
Still, some colleges go out of their way to report crime that occurs in areas around their campuses, even when not required to by law. The Houston Community College System’s Northline Mall campus, for example, included seven homicides in its annual crime reports, despite the fact that all of the crimes occurred in low-income housing adjacent to the campus. Had the college adhered strictly to the Clery Act requirements, it could have omitted this information from its report.
Lippincott said he recognizes that universities fear being branded as unsafe, but stresses that departments must improve their reporting of rape cases.
“Sexual assault is a very serious problem that campuses must deal with,” he said. “The key to confronting and reducing the violence is to acknowledge that the problem exists. Burying the problem under a pile of technicalities does not advance the ball.”
Taylor Timmins, a student at the Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story is part of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas’ “Light of Day” project.
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