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Crime Reporting and Response

THE 2007 MASSACRE at Virginia Tech in which 32 people were killed by a gunman who then committed suicide and the 2008 Valentine’s Day shooting at Northern Illinois University that left six dead show the worst-case scenarios of how violent crimes can hit campuses. Yet a host of crimes that don’t make national headlines pose serious concerns for students, faculty, staff, and parents. For years, lawmakers and advocacy groups have attempted to ensure that schools are doing all they can to protect their students. One step in that direction is to make sure that information about crimes is collected and shared; another is to make sure that schools are ready to respond if incidents do occur.

The first part of that equation was addressed in the original Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990, enacted in response to the rape and murder of 19-year-old Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Ann Clery by another student. The act has been amended four times since initial passage and is now known as the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The following overview examines how the law has evolved to address incident response, the challenges of newer provisions coming into effect this summer, and the problems cited by critics.

New Requirements

The most recent amendments to the Clery Act were included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act, a reauthorization of a 1965 law. The new requirements, which go into effect this summer, pertain to emergency response, situational risk warnings, missing-student response, hate crimes, memoranda of understanding, and whistleblower protection.

Emergency response. Schools are now required to disclose their emergency response plans and evacuation procedures in their annual security report (ASR). Most of the schools surveyed for this article already had such plans in place; the only difference is that now they must add it into the crime report, says Chief Barbara O’Connor, executive director of public safety for University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Schools are also required to conduct one yearly test of the plan, which might be in the form of a drill, and include an assessment of the test in the ASR.

Immediate warning. A major controversy coming out of the Virginia Tech shootings was how long the school waited to give warning of a potential threat.

The incident began with what officials assumed was an isolated double shooting in a dorm room, which left two dead. The school did not send out a warning for nearly two hours as it investigated because, although it had a murderer at large, there did not appear to be an active shooter. The second round of attacks began only about 15 minutes after the school’s e-mailed warning.

The Department of Education determined, after an investigation concluded earlier this year, that Virginia Tech violated the Clery Act because the school did not provide adequate and timely warning of a campus threat as Clery required. The school disputes that charge, noting that “timely” was not defined at the time of the incident, and no interpretations available at that time suggested that it meant “immediate.”

In response to the Virginia Tech shootings, new language has been put forth. It stipulates that a school must “immediately notify the campus community upon the confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff” on the campus.

The school asserts that the two hours might be fairly construed as a timely response as the term was then understood. This view is supported in a report funded by Virginia Tech, in which the firm D. Stafford and Associates, which provides extensive Clery Act training, found that the University was acting on par with accepted standards of the day.

“It appears to me that they’re really being held to the new immediate notification standards and not to what we all in the business know was the standard that we were using pre-Virginia Tech. So, we’re holding them to a standard that didn’t exist, and I don’t think that’s fair to anybody,” says Dolores Stafford, who heads the firm and who served as long-time police chief at The George Washington University (GWU) before retiring in May.

It is clear that schools will now have a tougher standard to meet in terms of notification, though the timing is still ambiguous. Steven Janosik, associate professor for educational leadership and policy studies at Virginia Tech who has conducted several studies on the Clery Act, notes that even under the revised language, “‘immediate’ is still a relative term, but it’s a lot better than ‘timely.’ In that sense, I think we’re making some good progress,” he says.

Jonathan Kassa of Security On Campus, Inc., a nonprofit advocate for the Clery Act and other campus safety measures, says one of the reasons that regulators still have not set an explicit time limit is that they understand situations are fluid and will depend on the facts on the ground. The school’s top priority will still be defusing an emergency situation, but the new wording pushes the importance of communications up a notch.

The notification only applies in “significant emergencies.” The emphasis on immediacy might be a problem for deciding whether to immediately warn of ongoing crimes, such as burglaries, though it’s not clear that those would be considered “significant emergencies.” “If it’s a string of burglaries, is the chief getting up at 2 a.m. to write a warning? Or can the chief put out a warning the next day, the next morning?” wonders Stafford.

Missing students. Another new requirement is that schools with on-campus housing must establish and disclose a missing-student notification policy that allows any student living on campus to provide a contact person who would be informed if the student were missing for 24 hours. Schools are also required to notify law enforcement about missing students.

Stafford helped GWU implement changes to put the school in compliance with the new requirement. Doing so entailed a costly software upgrade. She says the school worked with the vendor that supplies the residential-life software that manages on-campus residency. The company added a page where the missing-student contact person could be entered.

O’Connor says that her school’s housing department is handling compliance with this law by changing its housing data base input parameters to add an opportunity for students to submit the new contact person.

Even more challenging than getting the contact name process added to a database is figuring out how to know when a student has gone missing after just 24 hours. Jane Tuttle of the Office of the Vice Provost for the University of Kansas says that many students will go away for a few days, and it is hard to determine whether a student is truly missing.

Hate crimes. Another new requirement is an expansion of the types of crimes that schools must report as hate crimes. The reporting has broadened to correlate with the FBI’s uniform crime reporting so that all hate-crime reporting will be consistent, whether issued from the government or universities. O’Connor notes as one example of what would now be included: schools sometimes have hate-crime graffiti, which they did not have to report prior to this law change.

The broadened reporting scheme will likely result in schools apparently having a spike in hate crimes over what they were reporting before, says Douglas Tuttle, an instructor and policy analyst at the University of Delaware Institute for Public Administration. Tuttle has testified on the Clery Act in Congress and provides Clery Act training to schools. Universities will have to explain that the change is due to a redefinition of the category, rather than a real rise in actual activity, he says.

Tuttle advises that schools reach out to media outlets to explain the change in the new hate-crime reporting numbers.

Another challenge, according to O’Connor, is that it can sometimes be difficult to determine what is a hate crime. “I think the issue of a swastika is pretty clear that that is a hate crime,” she says, but other cases may be less clear.

She says that something like an assault involving an attacker of one race or gender or religion and a victim of another may or may not be hate-related and that will be more difficult to assess.

Memorandum of understanding. One of the amendments to the Clery Act requires that the institution disclose any formal agreement (such as a memorandum of understanding, or MOU) that it has with state and local law enforcement for the investigation of crimes. Security On Campus’s S. Daniel Carter worked on developing the amendments, and he says it was spurred by numerous situations over the years in which confusion over jurisdiction or hesitance by campus investigators to call in outside help hindered crime response and reports of missing students.

“Everyone says they work together, but what do the documents really say? And we want to make sure we have a starting point in the years moving ahead that these MOUs, these agreements actually are helping to build bridges,” Kassa says.

All sorts of situations should be spelled out in the agreement, from active shooter to sexual assault, says Kassa.

Whistleblower clause. There are now safeguards for individuals complying with the Clery Act to be protected from retaliation from within their organizations who might try to punish them for being fully compliant or truthful.

New Focus

Whatever the compliance challenges for schools, the overall direction of the changes is viewed as positive by experts. For example, some of the newest amendments make it clear that the Clery Act is not just about reporting crimes and statistics; it’s also about emergency planning and reaction. And Kassa says that’s the way it was always meant to be.

Douglas Tuttle agrees, saying that the newer amendments represent more of what the law was always all about, rather than just numbers reporting. “I think the amendments are truer to the original spirit of the law.”

There has also been a positive change in how compliance responsibilities are viewed internally at schools. Captain Rhoda Averna of the University of Connecticut Police Department says there has been a shift from the old days when the university’s administration saw the issue as something that higher-ups did not need to focus on directly.

Kassa says that is one of the act’s goals: “We really promote the fact that compliance with the Jeanne Clery Act should not be the sole responsibility of campus public safety or law enforcement. It’s an institutional responsibility. That message is starting to get out there more. You don’t just dump it on the shoulders of the chief or delegate it to one department or person. It’s everybody’s responsibility, and it begins with the president on down.”

Ongoing Challenges

Although the Clery Act has been around for about 20 years, it is not only the recent changes that present compliance challenges. Even some of the longstanding provisions are still difficult, say school officials.

One mandate that can be confusing for schools is the requirement to report crime “reasonably contiguous” to campus. Dennis Gregory, associate professor of higher education at Old Dominion University who has done research on the Clery Act, says that one of the challenges is that this requirement depends on how the cities and localities report crimes, and that can often vary from one area to another.

Additionally, as with many federal requirements, the Clery Act can be regarded as something of an unfunded mandate. Stafford says that large universities often need a full-time staffer to comply with the Clery Act, and for smaller schools, it might be a part-time job. But she points out that the people who are in charge of the hiring decisions aren’t always aware of all the work that goes into accumulating the reports and other areas of compliance. One solution that Stafford’s colleague had was to bring her supervisor to an extensive Clery Act training program, so that the supervisor would understand how extensive compliance is.

Training. Stafford also points out that one of the other challenges in Clery Act compliance is ensuring that everyone applicable receives appropriate training on the nuances of compliance. Training cannot be provided simply to the chiefs and heads of departments but must also be given to those individuals who will be keeping the records and compiling the statistics day to day.


Critics of the Clery Act question whether it has made campuses safer. Gregory and Janosik assert that other more proactive approaches might be more effective, such as community-oriented policing programs and getting more police officers on campus.

The pair also take issue with how crimes are reported under the Clery Act. They advise making it more like the FBI uniform crime reporting by reporting crimes per one hundred thousand students, rather than just raw numbers for each type of crime. The way it is now provides no comparative basis between schools of different sizes, they note.

“The crime reporting statistics really don’t tell the story, because there is no context within which to put them,” says Gregory. “If you have two murders at a small private college in Indiana, in a small rural residential community, or two murders on the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus where there are 100,000 students, the impact of that is just tremendously different,” he says.

Janosik and Gregory have brought these ideas to government officials, but they have not heard back on their recommendations.

Gregory and Janosik have also found that students and parents do not often consult the Clery statistics and that the ASRs do not necessarily change student behavior.

Despite these drawbacks, Janosik notes that the law does achieve some objectives. “It does sensitize administrators to the criminal activity that occurs on campus. It does create a standard reporting mechanism,” he says.

There’s also a positive aspect of the Clery Act’s new amendments: they cause campuses to revisit their overall compliance. O’Connor says she brought together everyone from the campus security to the housing department and the Dean’s office to discuss the act. “We took the opportunity with the new amendments to go back and ensure a good solid foundation and the past requirements and just sort of build off of that, make sure that our foundation was strong, that we were in fact in compliance,” says O’Connor.

Clery Act compliance is not easy, emphasizes Stafford. “I don’t think we’re really where we need to be as an industry, but I definitely have seen improvements. And I think the nice thing about it is, honestly, most of my colleagues really care about this. They want to do it right.”

Laura Spadanuta is an associate editor at Security Management.