Campus crimes slip through cracks
On April 5, 1986, 19-year-old Jeanne Clery was asleep in her dorm room at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. Another student broke into her room, tortured, raped and killed her. Her killer had entered the building through a door that was supposed to be locked but was propped open. Jeanne’s parents found out after her death that there had been 181 reports of doors propped open in her building in the four months before her murder and that students had not been told about multiple violent crimes on campus over the past few years.
The Clerys met resistance from Lehigh as the university denied negligence and asserted the campus was safe. The Clerys filed suit against the school for negligent failure of security and failure to warn of foreseeable dangers on campus, and in its settlement Lehigh agreed to improve campus security.
The Clerys also campaigned for federal legislation requiring colleges and universities to keep students informed about campus crime. The Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act passed in 1990 and was renamed in 1998 as the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, usually known as the Clery Act.
Of the many aspects of the college experience, the effects of the Clery Act are prevalent but not necessarily striking. Many students probably cannot name what the Clery Act is, but they encounter its effects every time they read the campus police blotter in their college newspaper or get an e-mail notifying them about recent break-ins on campus.
The Clery Act was passed almost 20 years ago to ensure that college and university students are informed of criminal activity on campus. The act requires campus security forces to maintain a log of all crimes committed on campus and to distribute an annual report of crime statistics.
Amendments signed into law in August 2008 require universities to publicize their emergency response plans and to “immediately notify the campus community upon the confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation,” a measure included after the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007.
However, as many universities are working on installing and testing their emergency notification systems, some institutions are still having trouble fulfilling the act’s original reporting requirements.
Since it was first passed, the Clery Act required that campus security departments keep a log of all crimes reported and that this log be made available to the public and kept up-to-date with incidents within two days of their occurrence. But some schools are still falling behind on this reporting.
Reporters at Sidelines, the student newspaper at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., published an editorial on July 23 noting the crime log had not been updated for nearly three weeks over the summer and 418 crime reports were missing from the campus crime logs.
Sidelines Managing Editor Andy Harper said that many of the 418 crime reports not in the campus crime log were in a separate “case log,” which he was told contained only miscellaneous items like medical emergencies and fire alarms. Harper found that some of the reports that appeared in the case log included vandalism, thefts and drug charges.
“I’m not really sure what’s ?miscellaneous’ about those items, but they were missing from the crime log, and I found them in the case log,” said Harper.
S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for campus safety advocacy group Security On Campus, said that consistently updated campus crime logs are important in keeping students informed about crimes occurring on and around campus.
“Each entry in the crime log is supposed to contain an easily understandable description of the crime,” said Carter.
Annual security reports
In addition to maintaining campus crime logs, some universities have found inconsistencies in the way they file the annual security reports that must be distributed to students and employees.
An Oct. 22 audit of the State University of New York system by the New York State Comptroller’s Office found inconsistencies in 19 out of the 29 colleges between the crime statistics published in the annual security reports and the reports submitted to the Department of Education. One college, Empire State College, reported statistics to the Department of Education but had not created an annual security report.
“We’re not saying that we think anyone deliberately did it, but there is certainly information that’s very concerning,” said Jennifer Freeman, a spokesperson for New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
The audit found some of the colleges overreported crimes to the Department of Education, while others underreported incidents on their annual security reports. One school reported nine sexual assaults to the Department of Education, but only four in the annual security report. Some of the schools misclassified crimes by categorizing crimes that fell under the Act’s definition of reportable burglaries as larcenies, which are not required to be reported.
Carter said that the biggest question arising from the SUNY case was the definition of burglary versus larceny or theft. While burglary denotes unlawful presence or trespass into private areas, such as a dorm room, larceny covers the theft of items from public areas. Burglary is much more serious, said Carter.
“We’re very sensitive to that because the element of illegal presence signifies a far greater potential threat than someone merely stealing a book bag out of the library,” he said. “That’s someone who’s not supposed to be there.”
Freeman said that the comptroller’s office had reported the inconsistencies to the Department of Education but it would be up to the federal government to determine whether to take disciplinary action.
Lauren Sheprow, a spokesperson for SUNY at Stony Brook, one of the colleges cited in the audit for underreporting in its annual security reports, stressed that the Clery Act violations only mean that the school is not reporting correctly and that overall safety is not an issue. The university has taken steps to correct its information and update the annual security reports to match the Department of Education information.
“We take it very seriously. Obviously, we want to be completely compliant with the Clery Act,” she said.
The Washington Square Times, the student newspaper for New York University, recently reported that NYU’s Clery statistics were misleading because most of the campus dorms were categorized as “non-campus buildings” rather than as campus residence halls in the annual security report.
“Most people would look at the statistics and, not knowing the fine points of the Clery Act, would probably assume that all the residential facilities were probably included in the student residential facilities column,” said Carter in the Washington Square Times article. He recommended that the school specify which non-campus buildings are dorms in order to clarify the information.
The Clery Act has long required that colleges and universities notify students in a “timely manner” to threats to their safety. Following the Virginia Tech tragedy, amendments were signed into law in August 2008 to require schools to have “emergency response and notification procedures.”
Many colleges have adopted a text messaging alert system that allows students to receive emergency notices on their cell phones, and others send out e-mails or have installed public address systems.
But there have been reports of bugs in the new systems. At Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore., the campus phone system lagged behind the text messages and e-mails, as some calls came in 30 minutes after the initial alert. Only a small fraction of the school’s students and faculty had signed up for text messages by the test date.
Jonathan Dolan, associate director of network services at the university, said that the low participation in text messages was “disappointing,” but that the delays in the phone messages are a case of human error and would be corrected. He said the phone delays did not affect public opinion.
“Everyone was very positive and very supportive of the system in general,” he said.Alison Kiss, program director for Security on Campus, said that schools should have multiple methods in case one malfunctions.
“We encourage schools to have a multi-modal system, instead of one method to have many,” said Kiss. “This can be high or low technology, anything from text messaging systems to on-campus loudspeakers to instant messaging systems.”
At Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky., reports of armed gunmen on campus caused officials to send out emergency alerts via text message, e-mail and outdoor speakers telling students to seek shelter. Bob Skipper, the university’s media relations director, said that about 1 percent of around 14,000 individuals did not receive a text message.
“We know there are going to be some who don’t get the text message for whatever reason,” he said. “That’s why we use the multiple layer approach.”
Other students say that their campuses have emergency alert systems, but have not used them. Student editors at the University of Nevada at Reno’s the Nevada Sagebrush wrote an angry editorial in fall 2008 about how the campus police did not issue either an emergency alert or a “timely warning” to students after a September shooting one block from campus.
“The only way we found out about was through sheer dumb luck,” said Sagebrush Editor in Chief Nick Coltrain. He said that although the university police responded to the shooting as a backup unit, the incident was not included in the campus crime log.
Commander Todd Renwick of the UNR police department told the Sagebrush that students had not been alerted because the incident posed no risk to students. Coltrain disagreed, saying that a shooting near campus is something that students need to know about.
“The point of the staff editorial was to say police didn’t tell us about that,” said Coltrain. “That is unacceptable. They should be alerting us to violent incidents so close to campus.”
reports, Winter 2008-09