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Cumberland Times-News Slams FSU in Misinformed Editorial

The Cumberland Times-News published on April 20 an editorial that links increased crime in the City of Frostburg to apparently lower admissions standards at Frostburg State University.

The editorial was prompted by an apparent surge in criminal activity in the region, including a series of robberies and an on-campus fight. It is not known whether the robbers are actually students. In the on-campus fight, it was Anthony Jeffries – who is not an FSU student – who was arrested for striking a police officer in the face.

The Times-News also cited an incident in which “a porch roof at a Wood Street residence collapsed when several students began jumping up and down on it.”

Their editorial began with an analogy that compared the southward migration of farmer Wilmer McLean to move away from the violence of the Civil War to a local woman’s move away from Baltimore. It was at McLean’s house where the treaty ending the Civil War was signed.

The Times-News editorial board wrote, “Only two years ago, Frostburg State was receiving national acclaim for its accomplishments in curbing student drinking, sexual assaults, hazing, vandalism and other problems on a campus that had a history of being a rowdy party school. Other educational institutions used what the university did as a model for their own reforms. Now, it seems that the problem has returned.”

The board added, “if they keep causing chaos and havoc, identify them and kick them out. Send the hoodlums back to wherever they came from.”

Many of the Times-News’s assertions are unfounded and uncorroborated by facts; instead, their editorial hinges on anecdotal accounts from the Frostburg City Police Chief, Royce Douty, and Mary Distel, a Frostburg woman who moved from Baltimore to escape crime.

Reportedly, Distel has told her husband she wants to move again due to what she perceives as increased crime. She was quoted as saying, “I told my husband we need to look for another place. I moved up here from Baltimore to get away from this … There’s been a lot more crimes this year compared to last year.”

Frostburg City Police Chief Royce Douty was quoted in the editorial as saying, “I think (the students) are getting worse.”

Douty has not responded to multiple requests for comment. On April 20, The Bottom Line requested data from Douty’s office to corroborate his claim that violent crime has increased among the student population.

At an April 21 City Hall meeting, Frostburg Mayor Bob Flanigan said, “We have had to face an increasing hostile student population, including a dramatic increase in violent crime among that same population.”

Flanigan did not provide data to support this.

According to data provided by FSU officials, student crime is decreasing or remaining constant.

“There are too many variables to place the emphasis solely on “students” when in fact in most cases the person responsible for the criminal act is either a non-student, or remains unidentified,” said FSU Police Chief Cynthia Smith. “While there have been several robberies this spring, the general trend of violent crime has been down. Referring to the most recent 2014 Maryland Uniform Crime report prepared by the Maryland State Police, the crime rate in Frostburg was down 12.8% and the total offenses reported was down by 14.0%. http://www.goccp.maryland.gov/msac/documents/2014-crime-in-maryland-ucr.pdf”

The trend of criminal calls for service has also trended down from 221 in 2012, to 183 in 2015, to 92 so far in 2016, according to Smith.

“As you can see the trend has been generally down,” Smith said. “So far this year, there is a bump upwards, however keep in mind that this could be due to a number of reasons such as increased enforcement. There are so many variables that contribute to crime and arrest rates that isolating one variable and pointing to it as causative often leads to misguided and incorrect conclusions.”

Smith added that “Frostburg State University takes our student and campus community safety seriously. Very visible evidence of this can be seen as construction has begun on a new police station to be located on the College Avenue Lot. This is a strategic location placing a very visible University Police adjacent to the area which is primarily student housing.”

Dr. Jesse Ketterman, FSU’s Dean of Students, said there has not been a significant increase in student conduct issues on campus.

“From a student conduct side, there hasn’t been any significant change in the types of violations that we’re dealing with,” he said. He did say that he has seen a slight increase in marijuana usage that is consistent with national trends. “For the most part, most of our other violations again have remained relatively constant over the years,” he continued.

Some violations have even decreased, according to Ketterman. He said that on-campus alcohol violations dropped from 174 in 2013 to 102 in 2015.

“It’s hard to define what attributes to the change,” Ketterman said. “There’s lots of different variables that can impact how the number is. But over time, that number of alcohol violations and other violations on campus remains fairly consistent.”

Distel and the Times-News Editorial Board attribute what they perceive as worsening student behavior to allegedly lowering academic standards at Frostburg State University.

The Times-News did not return a request for comment on this editorial.

Distel was quoted as saying, “It’s getting bad around here because of the students, and I’ve heard they’re lowering their standards. So anyone can get in.”

According to a statement from Interim President Tom Bowling, which was published in The Bottom Line and in the Times-News, admission standards have actually increased.

“In 2006, FSU’s admit rate – the percentage of those freshmen who are admitted compared to the percentage who applied – was 76 percent,” Bowling said. “In fall of 2015, we admitted only 63 percent. Over that time, the grade point averages (GPAs) and SAT scores of entering students have generally remained constant, even as the average SAT has declined statewide.”

In Fall 2006, the admit rate was 70 percent, according to data provided by Sara-Beth Bittinger, FSU’s Director of Assessment and Institutional Research. After this, the admit rate dropped to 63 percent in 2007 and continued to decrease until it bottomed out at 55 percent in 2011.

Although the recent admit rate of 63 percent is an increase from the 55 percent admit rate in Fall 2011, the changes have been gradual and not as significant as thought to be. 63 percent is still a far cry from the 76 percent admit rate in 2005 and even the 70 percent admit rate in 2006.

Moreover, the average GPA of an admitted student has been 3.1 or higher since 2008, recently reaching 3.2 in 2014. This is an increase from 3.06 in 2005.

“And while still preliminary, the credentials of students planning to attend in fall 2016 appear very promising, with SATs and GPAs that outshine those of the past several years,” Bowling added.

Heather Wolford, a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News, reported that two attempts to reach FSU’s admissions office were unsuccessful. Wray Blair, FSU’s Associate Provost of Enrollment, returned a request for comment from The Bottom Line within an hour.

Wolford did not return a request for comment.

Admissions data is available on FSU’s website through the Office of Assessment and Institutional Research.

Chief Douty also said the City of Frostburg gets “the majority of the hit because most of these kids live off campus,” the Times-News reported. However, the split between undergraduate students living off-campus and on-campus is fairly even.

FSU’s on-campus housing options, which include Edgewood Commons and the residence halls, can account for 2,095 students, according to Liz Medcalf, Director of News and Media Services. Medcalf said that “roughly 2,000 [undergraduate] students” live off-campus.

Not all off-campus students live in Frostburg. Many students commute from Cumberland, Lavale, or other areas in the region.

Although crime is a significant issue in the community, the facts and the data clearly show that these problems, while still present, are not nearly as prevalent as Douty, Distel, and the Times-News imply. Their assertions that admissions standards are decreasing and that students are behaving worse have no support from factual evidence.

There is no basis for arguing that students are getting worse. What could be argued, however, is that the FSU student population is growing at a fast rate, and that a large population has caused an increase in criminal activity.

In 2005, 4,321 undergraduate students were enrolled in FSU, and there were a total of 5,041 total students, including graduate students. Now, in 2016, there are 4,961 undergraduate students, with a total of 5,756. However, Medcalf added that, “it is primarily full-time students who live on and around campus. That current number (fall 2015) is 4,176, compared to 4,053 full-time undergrads in 2005. The largest growth has been in part-time students. So it’s not quite as big a jump in the resident student population over the last 10 years as the total headcount numbers might indicate.”

However, it’s just plain irresponsible to blame students for apparent increases in violent crime. There is no data to corroborate that.

If on campus crime has decreased or remained the same, as officials have said, it is quite a jump to attribute a spike in crime solely to students.

“Seek truth and report it,” it says in the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics. “Journalists should take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.” It adds, “Journalists should diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.”

Hard facts and verifiable data should always remain at the core of responsible journalism. It is prudent to vet information with sources implicated in a news story or editorial.

Anecdotal accounts from one lone resident and a police chief hardly justify such a scathing editorial.

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