Ignorance and Low Priority of Clery Act Obligations May Extend Beyond Penn State

July 12, 2012

It was a rare campus official who knew, in 2001, the full scope of his obligations under the federal campus-crime-reporting law known as the Clery Act. Conscience may have guided a university employee to report an apparent crime to the police, but as for compliance with the Clery Act, ignorance prevailed.

That was the case at Pennsylvania State University, where campus officials failed to report incidents of sexual abuse, including one in 2001, by Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach who has since been convicted on 45 counts of child molestation. The report released on Thursday morning by the former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, who investigated the university's conduct with respect to Mr. Sandusky, found a widespread "lack of awareness" of the Clery Act.

Such unfamiliarity was common at the time, said S. Daniel Carter, a national expert on campus safety. "While regrettable, Penn State's understanding of the Clery Act in 2001 was not that unusual," he said. "There was a profound level of ignorance."

In February 2001, Michael McQueary, then a graduate assistant in Penn State's football program, witnessed Mr. Sandusky assaulting a boy in the locker room's showers. Although that information was shared among senior athletic-department and university officials, including the former president, Graham B. Spanier, "no record exists" of a report to the police, Mr. Freeh's investigation found.

Mr. Spanier has asserted that Penn State "was big on compliance, more than other universities," but according to the report, he was unfamiliar with the university's compliance with the Clery Act. "No one at Penn State had ever informed him that the university was not in compliance," he told Mr. Freeh's team. The U.S. Department of Education is now investigating the university under the Clery Act.

The law designates faculty and staff members with significant oversight of student and campus life including coaches and athletic directors as "campus security authorities," and requires them to share reports of crimes for inclusion in law-enforcement departments' annual reports to the federal government. But until 2007, even Penn State's police officers were ignorant of both the role of campus-security authorities and the need to gather reports of crimes from outside their department.

In April 2007, the department sent a number of employees to Philadelphia for one of 10 training sessions on the Clery Act that year by the advocacy group Security on Campus. Awareness of the law had been spreading, and the U.S. Department of Education was then conducting a high-profile investigation of Eastern Michigan University for an apparent cover-up of a student's rape and murder. Two years earlier, the department had released a handbook of guidance on complying with the Clery Act.

At the training, Penn State's police officers began to grasp the scope of the law, according to Mr. Freeh's report.

Mr. Carter, who directs a campus-safety project at a foundation representing victims of the shootings at Virginia Tech, has seen those "light-bulb moments," he said. "Penn State's experience moving from ignorance to understanding of the law is consistent with many institutions of higher education across the country."

'Other Priorities'

Still, police officers' participation in a training session doesn't necessarily induce broad campus awareness and buy-in. From April 2007, Penn State's police department began holding meetings with faculty and staff members, including in athletics, to explain their obligations under the law, but there wasn't much traction, according to Mr. Freeh's report. "The training sessions and outreach efforts were conducted primarily for just one or two years, were 'sporadic,' and were not well attended," it said.

The police department created an online process for people to report crimes, but through 2011, it had generated only one completed form.

For the slow movement, perpetual higher-education problems were to blame: "lack of time and resources," the report said. The director of the police department suggested to Gary C. Schultz, senior vice president for finance and business, a new position of "compliance coordinator," according to the report. He "was told that while the need for the position existed, the university had other priorities that needed attention first."

In 2009, the report said, an outside lawyer shared information on Clery Act compliance with the university, and the police department drafted a policy that would have clearly communicated university employees' responsibilities. As of November 2011, the policy remained a draft, according to the report.

"That is profoundly disappointing," Mr. Carter said. "Unfortunately, it's not especially surprising." As a trainer on the Clery Act, he hears frequent concerns from participants in the sessions who know they'll struggle, once they return to their campuses, to convey urgency up the chain of command.

Several organizations and consulting firms now offer training on Clery Act compliance, and thousands of campus officials have taken part, Mr. Carter estimated. The Education Department's increasing oversight, signaled by more reviews of colleges, may contribute to increased participation.

The general level of awareness of the Clery Act is much higher than it was a decade ago, Mr. Carter said, but ignorance still exists in pockets. Empowering participants in training sessions to push for new policies and procedures at their institutions is a significant challenge, he said.

As a result of Mr. Freeh's report and the Education Department's investigation, Penn State is likely to introduce many changes. Already it created a position unusual if not unique in higher education: a Clery Act compliance coordinator, for which it hired a criminologist, Gabriel R. Gates, in March.

"I definitely wanted to make sure that this position wasn't a PR move to say, 'Look, we're hiring a compliance coordinator; give us a break,'" Mr. Gates told The Chronicle this past spring. "After extensive discussions, it was clear to me that Penn State was making the hire for sincere reasons."

"Hiring me and doing a great job from here on out isn't going to change what happened, but we are doing everything we can to never let that happen again," he said. "I wanted to come in here and set the standard for Clery Act compliance. I want other universities to look at Penn State and say, 'Wow, how did they do that in a year?'"