Content Warning: This article addresses issues of sexual assault and other violent crime.
Three weeks ago, I overheard a group of women talking about a “rape on frat row.”
It was February 6, a Tuesday, and I was making quesadillas with some friends on McBain 4. Earlier that day, everyone in the room, as well as everyone else whose email address ends in @columbia.edu, had received an email from Columbia Public Safety. There had been a sexual assault in a 114th Street brownstone “sometime over the weekend,” the email said. The suspect was “an unidentified male.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the scanty details, students began to whisper about the incident.
This email was an example of a Clery Crime Alert: a brief, informational alert that Public Safety may send out about a crime on or near campus. Some students ignore the emails—a 2012 Spectator editorial joked that we get “more spam from Public Safety than Viagra.” For many, however, Clery Crime Alerts serve as the only steady source of information about crime on campus.
The story behind these email alerts begins in 1986, when a woman named Jeanne Clery was raped and murdered by a fellow student at Lehigh University. Clery’s parents sued Lehigh, arguing that their daughter would not have attended if they had known about the school’s rates of violent crime.
Four years later, Congress passed the Clery Act, which established sweeping requirements for crime reporting on campus. Under the act, universities have to collect all reported crimes in a daily log and an annual report and must make this information public or face a hefty fine. They must also send out Clery Crime Alerts for crimes that represent a “serious or continuing threat to students.” These alerts are by far the most visible part of their operations.
Each alert features a conspicuous disclaimer, italicized and in red, that assures readers that the emails are “distributed pursuant to Federal Law for specific crimes.” This phrasing makes Columbia seem like a powerless cog in the wheels of bureaucratic requirements. In reality, they have the discretion to send alerts for crimes on a case-by-case basis.
The Department of Education does release guidelines asking that alerts be timely and “aid in the prevention of similar crimes,” but the handbook leaves it up to each university to define what exactly determines a “serious or continuous threat.” Colleges can even choose the medium of their alerts: While Barnard tacks printouts onto cork boards for its Clery Crime Alerts, Columbia has had some version of its current email system since at least 2008.
The emails further disclaim that the alerts “do not present, nor are they intended to present, a complete picture of crime on campus.” Nevertheless, these alerts have a profound effect on the student body’s perception of serious crime on campus. If they don’t paint a complete picture, what picture are they painting?
Last fall, Spectator reported that on-campus sexual assaults rarely trigger an email alert. The Eye’s subsequent digging—a process that involved visits to Low Library to see the crime log, a review of Annual Security Reports, and long hours parsing emailed alerts into color-coded spreadsheets—has revealed further discrepancies between crimes reported to Public Safety and crimes included in their alerts.
Because the Clery Act prioritizes alerts for crimes in which the perpetrator is still at large, most crime alerts feature perpetrators who are non-Columbia affiliates rather than students. As a result, and regardless of Public Safety’s intent, most students hear almost exclusively about crime on campus perpetrated by people from the neighboring areas. Students are largely in the dark about the rate of violent student-on-student crime. Although these alerts adhere to the letter of the law, they may not live up to the spirit of the Clery Act because they do not reflect many of the most serious threats faced by students.
Which do you think constitutes a greater percentage of reported crime on campus: robbery or dating violence?
For example, an instance of stalking, dating violence, or domestic violence has not triggered an alert to the Columbia community since at least May 2014. Such incidents constituted 47.20 percent of the reported crime on campus from 2015-2016, when such data is available.
In contrast, robbery made up only 9.94 percent of the 161 crimes reported to Public Safety from 2015 to 2016, but comprised over four times that percentage, a whopping 40 percent, of the crimes that triggered an alert in that time period. (These numbers exclude disciplinary write-ups for alcohol, drug use, and weapons, as do all of our graphs.) Burglary, a non-violent crime, also disproportionately triggered alerts.
In response to The Eye’s request for an interview, Facilities and Operations, which oversees Public Safety, said in a statement that affiliate status of the suspected perpetrator does not factor into the decision to send out a Clery Crime Alert. Nevertheless, of the last 51 alerts, only one has explicitly said the perpetrator was a student.
The information included in Clery emails tends to suggest that burglaries are committed by non-Columbia affiliates—of the 19 available alerts for burglary or attempted burglary in the past three and a half years, nine mention New York Police Department involvement. Many others include information that heavily implies that the crime was committed by non-Columbia affiliates—alerts specify that the perpetrator had been previously arrested or was a person of interest, or include warnings about piggybacking (the practice of people without CUID following those with CUID into swipe-access buildings.) Other alerts say the perpetrator fled “north.”
Part of the problem is that Clery Crime Alerts and crime at Columbia as a whole are inextricably tied up with the notion that the threats come from the surrounding neighborhoods, a notion that is grounded in racist memory and, as crime log records show, widely exaggerated. As any student tour guide can tell you, Morningside Heights is one of the safest neighborhoods in Manhattan. The 26th precinct, which includes both Morningside Heights and Manhattanville, reported just one murder in 2017. AddressReport, a website that analyzes data by neighborhood to help inform potential movers, reports that residents in Morningside Heights and Manhattanville respectively face a 70 percent and 56 percent lower risk of burglary than the national average.
Vice President of Public Safety James McShane addressed falling crime in an interview with Spectator in 2008. He said that “people get this false impression that crime is up because there are one or two incidents.”
Nevertheless, there have long been voices on campus that argue McShane’s Clery Crime Alerts contribute to this “false impression” by painting a skewed picture, which leads to bias and fear.
More specifically, Public Safety has faced criticism for describing suspects by their race. In an interview with Spectator in 2016, McShane stated that Clery Crime Alert emails would no longer describe an alleged perpetrator’s race if a picture of the suspect existed. In some cases, however, an accompanying picture is so blurry that the effect is the same—the picture merely announces a race or skin color rather than allowing for a nuanced identification.
Sabina Jones, a sophomore in Columbia College who is black, expresses concern that emailing such pictures criminalizes blackness. “We are releasing a blurry picture saying this was a black man, 5’10’’ [with] dark skin,” she says. “I feel like it increases, ‘Oh, I need to be wary around all black men of all skin and all height.’”
Isaiah Hines, a first-year in Columbia College and a member of the Black Students’ Organization, says that he doesn’t think the University intends to create racial bias in students. Still, he says, Columbia “needs to be hyperaware of what effect it is having regardless.”
The Eye’s analysis found that including pictures helped identify suspects, but to a limited degree. Alerts with pictures lead to apprehensions in 17 of 51 emailed alerts, or 33.3 percent of the time, while an alert without a photo has never lead to an apprehension.
No Red Tape, a student group that advocates against sexual violence, wrote an op-ed for Spectator in 2014 asking for more alerts about sexual assaults and claiming that the current roster of emails is racially biased. “Columbia literally creates an image of a criminal through its security alerts: a man of color, a non-affiliate of the University who is committing minor crimes,” No Red Tape wrote. “This image of a criminal is wholly unrepresentative of crime and violence in our community, including sexual assault.”
The email we all received three weeks ago about the assault in the 114th Street brownstone was only the fifth alert in the past four years informing students of a sexual offense in University housing, and only the third alert that implied that a student assaulted another student. Seniors graduating this year have seen only five alerts of this nature in their time at Columbia, despite the fact that Public Safety has received reports of at least 28 such attacks from 2014 to 2016 alone. (The 2017 data for reported crime won’t be released until October.) The last time a Clery Crime Alert was about one student sexually assaulting another was in 2015.
What percent of sexual offense crimes reported to Public Safety happen in residence halls?%
Even the 41 total sex offenses reported to Public Safety from 2014 to 2016 don’t begin to capture the prevalence of sexual assault at Columbia, as the majority of sexual assaults go unreported. Last year’s $2.2 million Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation study, led by researchers from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Medical Center’s department of psychiatry, found that 13.6 percent of female undergraduates and 5.2 percent of male undergraduates at Columbia and Barnard have been victims of penetrative sexual assault. Given the demographics at both schools, that means over 1000 students have suffered rape. Although Clery Alerts wouldn’t be able to capture the magnitude of the issue, more alerts would increase student awareness of such assaults and patterns of where and when they take place.
The current alerts pertaining to sexual assault also do not proportionally reflect sexual assaults in residence halls. Sex offenses that don’t occur in residence halls (which are often people being groped on the street) are over 3.5 times more likely to be alerted than sexual offenses that occur in residence halls.
Facilities’ statement to The Eye noted that individual circumstances factor into the decision of whether to release an alert. These factors may include privacy concerns, whether the alleged perpetrator has been identified, and whether interim measures are in place.
It may seem reasonable for Public Safety not to report a crime when the victim has already identified the perpetrator. After all, when the University knows not only the name but also the room number of an attacker, a manhunt is hardly necessary, and less of an “ongoing threat” seems to exist. On-campus rapes usually feature a known perpetrator—one 2011 study found that the perpetrator is an acquaintance or romantic partner of the victim in 92 percent of rapes on college campuses. Victims also usually know the perpetrator in cases of stalking, dating violence, and domestic violence.
The Department of Education’s Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting suggests that crimes are alerted only when there is a continuing risk, and gives the following example: “If a Rape is reported on campus and the alleged perpetrator has not been caught, there is a risk of similar crimes. If the alleged perpetrator was reported or apprehended, there may not be a continuing risk.”
But some students say that a student perpetrator poses a threat even if they’ve been identified by the University. Meridith Wade, a junior in Columbia College who works at the Office of the Title IX Coordinator, says that she believes sending alerts about the crimes of students has, “in some cases, a higher level of importance” because the perpetrator “is still walking around our community.” Wade says that a failure to send such alerts can set “a bad precedent that we don’t care about what’s happening to our sexual assault victims.”
Wade stresses that a sexual assault survivor should always be in control of the reporting process—whether to report and to whom. But she thinks sending out a sufficiently vague alert, one that protects the student’s privacy, can still serve a critical function. “Even though it is the victim’s case and it happened to them,” Wade says, “it’s very important to remind people these things happen.”
These alerts can trigger conversation. Besides the women I overheard in the McBain floor lounge, I’ve heard students discussing alerts in class and in line for a Ferris salad. Friends have texted me screenshots of an alert and a “Hey, have you seen this!?”
In the past, mass emails have also forced reckonings. Last year, Dean Valentini notified students by email after each student death, forcing students to confront the prevalence of suicide on our campus.
Wade suggests that similarly alerting for every instance of sexual assault would keep it at the forefront of people’s minds. She laments that people often deny how common sexual assault is at Columbia.
When I ask Hines what most threatens him on campus, he says he worries the most about “protecting [his] physical self and [his] mental health from really heavy white supremacy and racism on campus,” citing a series talks by white supremacist speakers last fall.
I ask Haley Ward, a Barnard first-year whose bag was stolen from Dodge Fitness Center, whether she feels safe on campus. She says that she does in general. Then she tells me almost in passing about having been sexually harassed by another student. She talks gratefully about the systems women use to “protect themselves,” sharing information about creepy guys and checking in with each other at parties to make sure they aren’t receiving unwanted attention. “It’s amazing because the girls on campus know how to protect each other,” Ward says.
Although the Clery Act intended the Clery Crime Alert system to accurately represent threats on campus, its current implementation at Columbia means it does not reflect the threats students face on a daily basis. Instead, they inflate non-violent crime perpetrated by non-Columbia affiliates, often black men. For Hines, for Ward, and for many, the most immediate threat on campus is not an outsider prowling the streets or a stranger following someone into Pupin to steal computer equipment, but rather their fellow classmates at cast parties and sports games, in floor lounges and fraternity basements.
You just wouldn’t know it by checking your email.
Have fun leafing through our fifth issue!