What Makes a College “Safe”?

What Makes a College “Safe”? September 14, 2016

Earlier this year, Business Insider posted a list of the “25 safest college campuses in America.” The #1 safest college on the list is Brigham Young. The report stated that “students at Mormon-based BYU hold themselves to a high standard of honesty and trust . . . creating a safe and comfortable campus” and that “students accept a moral code of conduct forbidding the use of drugs or alcohol.” They quoted a student stating that “BYU provides an extremely safe environment for people of all ages, gender, and race.” Now hang on a moment. Remember this?

Before she could move into a dormitory at Brigham Young University or sign up for freshman classes, Brooke had to sign the college’s Honor Code.

. . .

But after Brooke, 20, told the university that a fellow student had raped her at his apartment in February 2014, she said the Honor Code became a tool to punish her. . . . Four months after reporting the assault, she received a letter from the associate dean of students.

“You are being suspended from Brigham Young University because of your violation of the Honor Code including continued illegal drug use and consensual sex, effective immediately,” the letter read.

And Brooke wasn’t the only one to whom this happened. Numerous other women have come forward saying that when they tried to report their assaults, the Honor Code was used against them, too. And what about all of the women who don’t report their rape or sexual assault, because doing so would reveal that they violated the Honor Code, and might lead to expulsion? Remember, an overtly patriarchal atmosphere doesn’t exactly foster healthy, egalitarian relationships between students, and arguably creates a less safe environment for female students.

What exactly was the methodology used to create Business Insider’s list? The rankings come from Niche, which offers a variety of rankings for both schools and universities. In this case, 30% of each school’s grade is based on student surveys (students at Christian universities have extra motivation to speak positively about their school, to protect their school’s witness), 25% is based on the crime rate reported by the university (this is the overall crime rate, as reported by the administration), 10% is based on student retention, 10% on the geographic location, 5% on alcohol-related arrests, and 5% on drug-related arrests.

While Niche’s rating system is ostensibly a measure of campus safety, rape and sexual assault are not given their own category. Sexual crimes might factor into student surveys about the university, but at Christian schools where individuals are taught to see sexual offenses as moral failings rather than as crimes—and to place blame on the victims—that factor would likely be muted. In addition, reported rape and sexual assault would factor into the crime rate, but based on a look at campus crime reports, this figure seems to hinge more on aggravated assault, burglary, and motor vehicle theft than it does on sexual offenses. Meanwhile, alcohol and drugs are given their own categories, despite the fact that their relation to campus safety is less obvious.

I have to wonder—why doesn’t a school’s response to rape, the actions it takes when faced with a report, play into that school’s safety rating? After all, a student who experiences rape has to worry about not only the rape itself but also about the response she will receive from her school if she reports the crime. You might have a secular university with a higher overall number of reported rapes that gives survivors the support they need, on the one hand, and a Christian university where fewer rapes are reported, but where students who do report their rapes are met with victim blaming, interrogation, and expulsion, on the other. Which campus is safer?

And further, how does Niche’s measure of campus safety grapple with the fact that not all rapes are reported? I keep thinking of blogger Samantha Field’s experience at Pensacola Christian College, or blogger Sarah Jones’ experience at Cedarville. And then I think about everything that came out concerning Bob Jones University a few years ago (not surprisingly, Niche ranks BJU the second safest college in South Carolina). Women who are raped or sexually assaulted have frequently received negative treatment from the administrations of Christian colleges. While secular schools’ administrations are by no means exempt, Christian colleges adhere to conservative ideas about morality and honor codes and sexuality that can create a thoroughly toxic situation for survivors.

The rankings reported by Business Insider tell far more about the relative non-sexual crimes in the area, student retention, and the amount of drinking and drugs on campus than they do about rates of sexual assault or the support survivors receive from their campus administration. In fact, I’ll go further than that—except for the student surveys, this rating tells us nothing about these things.

Hold that thought. I’d been trying to find a copy of the “student surveys on safety” to find out what questions were asked, and I couldn’t find anything at all about how this survey was conducted or what questions it contains. But I think I just figured it out. It appears that it’s not surveys at all. Instead, it’s reviews students leave on the Niche website. Yes, really. Students can leave reviews in various categories, and those reviews appear to be what Niche then calls “student surveys on safety” or “student surveys on campus dining” and so forth. This means that there were no questions asked about rape sexual assault, and that there was no attempt to get a random sampling of student responses.

Students are asked to give a rating of one to five stars, similar to Amazon reviews, for a given category (in this case “Health & Safety”) and then give a brief review. Here is a sampling of the reviews left for Brigham Young University:

“If you call the campus police if you don’t feel safe at night, someone will come walk you back to your dorm. There are a lot of campus police officers seen around and they are all very friendly.

“I have always felt safe on campus, there are a lot of rules but when you follow them they keep you safe.”

“There is no drinking and any sort of drugs are not allowed on campus and students sighn a personal honor code that explains that they will not drink or do drugs, steal, or any other misconduct. It the honor code is broken they have to talk to the school dean.”

“It’s against the honor code to even have sexual relations before being married so it is not a big problem at BYU. Also, they do take sexual assaults very,very seriously. There were people who we inappropriately grabbing women who were running and an email was sent out to everyone to warn them as well as to advise not running in certain areas and to be with a buddy.”

“You’re basically surrounded by people who love Jesus. There are a few wackjobs but they mostly don’t do anything. You don’t hear about much crime, and when anything happens, it’s big news.”

This is not confidence-inspiring. Nor is it at all scientific. Note the emphasis on the very honor code used to expel rape victims. Note the insistence that because it’s a Christian school, it of necessity is going to be safe. Note the equation of taking sexual assault seriously with telling women to run with a buddy when it came to light that some men (presumably students) were grabbing women sexually when they went running. First, actually making it seriously would involve catching the perps, not simply limiting women’s mobility. Second, sexual assault is far, far, far more likely to occur within a relationship or with someone the victim knows than it is to occur randomly and on the street.

It’s possible that the Niche rankings were never meant to say anything of substance about rape or sexual assault. Perhaps when its creators thought of “crime” and “safety” they thought of theft or drunken vandalism. But I (and many other women) don’t have that luxury. And when Brigham Young University, a school that expels survivors who report their rapes, is placed at the top of the list, what I hear is that women’s safety doesn’t matter.

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