Spot Checks Find Crime-Reporting Violations at 3 Universities

May 16, 2011

Campus-crime-reporting law comes with considerable requirements and sporadic enforcement, but a new partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Education Department has found three universities with violations that may carry fines.

According to formal reviews recently made public by the department, the Universities of Vermont and of Northern Iowa, and Washington State University at Pullman, all failed to comply with the federal law, known as the Clery Act, in at least two ways: reporting inaccurate crime statistics, for example, or submitting insufficient campus-safety policies.

The department began collaborating with the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services in October of 2008 to increase its monitoring of Clery Act compliance, an Education Department official said. The two agencies have since reviewed 32 colleges, conducting seemingly random audits rather than the department's more typical investigations of complaints, and so far referring three institutions for possible fines.

A review of the University of Vermont found five violations of the Clery Act. In 2007, the campus did not include 20 anonymously reported sex offenses in statistics submitted to the Education Department. University officials said they did not know at the time that anonymous reports to the Women's Center should be included in the annual statistics, but they now count and try to categorize such reports as forcible or nonforcible.

That review also found minor discrepancies between the university's crime log and its annual report to the federal government with respect to burglaries, larcenies, and "suspicious events."

In more-technical findings, the department cited Vermont and Northern Iowa for similar violations. Neither university disclosed in policy statements its method for disseminating "timely warnings" of reported crimes, nor the opportunity for a student accused of a sexual offense to bring an advocate to disciplinary hearings.

Also, the department found, neither university sufficiently notified students and employees of the annual security reports that institutions, under the law, must prepare for their campuses. Vermont failed to convey the exact Web address in 2008, and Northern Iowa neglected to notify the campus in 2007.

That same year, Northern Iowa mistakenly reported to the federal government an incomplete number of disciplinary actions for liquor-law violations, according to the review. The university listed 40 that occurred "on campus," but not 367 that occurred in residence halls.

Washington State misclassified two forcible-sex offenses, the department determined, and failed to disclose some campus-safety policies properly.

Helpful Clarification

On all counts, the universities corrected their errors and adjusted their policies and procedures to ensure future compliance, the reviews said. The department found those responses satisfactory but in some cases noted that the "corrective measures ... do not diminish the seriousness" of the violations.

Dave Zarifis, director of public safety at Northern Iowa, said the federal review helped to point out oversights in processing a heavy volume of information. "Sometimes it's a little tricky what's counted and not counted," he said.

Campus police and public-safety officers have expressed considerable confusion with Clery Act requirements, and the review clarified some of the finer points of compliance, Mr. Zarifis said. "We're coordinating more," he said, "to make sure we're capturing the information as best we can."

Campus-safety champions welcomed news of the Education Department's findings. In the past, only serious incidents—the shootings at Virginia Tech, a murder at Eastern Michigan University—have prompted the department to investigate compliance with the Clery Act, said S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy at Security on Campus, an advocacy group.

"Only the most extreme cases ever typically resulted in some type of enforcement action," Mr. Carter said. "Having random reviews makes sure that more routine matters are uncovered and corrected."

After all, day-to-day issues produce much of the information the Clery Act—named for Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student who was raped and murdered in her dormitory room in 1986—was designed to provide students and their families, he said. More clarification, he said, will lead to higher-quality data.

As the reviews continue, Northern Iowa, Vermont, and Washington State await possible fines. Under the Clery Act, fines are $27,500 per violation.