WASHINGTON – When Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called for the repeal of the Clery Act at a campus safety conference in June, Annette Spicuzza clapped. She wasn’t alone – the room rumbled with the applause of a hundred plus educators.
“I know the mess it is,” McCaskill said of the law. “So my goal would be to remove it.”
The Clery Act, enacted in 1991, requires all colleges and universities receiving federal money to collect and publish information on crimes that occur on or around campus. The law’s namesake, Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student, was murdered in her dorm room in 1986.
The Clery Act has been amended and expanded since then, and schools across the country have hired compliance officers like Spicuzza, who works for Stanford University, to keep up with its requirements.
‘As if we’re being set up to fail’
Spicuzza applauded McCaskill’s statement because she said the law has become too complicated to accomplish its own goals.
“Clery is – the spirit of it is wonderful,” Spicuzza said. “It’s just become very confusing and very difficult for individuals to define and navigate through.”
The Clery Act requires schools to have a public crime log that is updated within two days of any reportable incident. Schools are required to report crimes that fall into seven categories, including criminal homicide, sex offenses and aggravated assault. They are also required to publish an annual security report that includes three years of crime statistics.
Schools are responsible for devising notification and response systems for emergencies, to inform students of danger in a timely manner, among other requirements.
“It’s become so bureaucratic and so confusing in terms of property, location, geography, crime classifications and now the addition of dating, domestic and stalking,” Spicuzza said. “It almost makes you feel as if we’re being set up to fail.”
‘The Department of Education just accepts it’
If a university is found out of compliance with the Clery Act, it can be fined up to $35,000 per violation, or it could lose all federal funding.
The bill McCaskill is sponsoring, the Campus Safety and Accountability Act, would not repeal Clery. It seeks to reduce sexual assault on college campuses by creating cooperation between university and town police, providing additional information to students and providing more training to campus officials.
With bipartisan support from 33 cosponsors, the bill was considered by a committee last month, but has not yet been put to a vote. The bill would require schools to publish Clery information online and raise the maximum penalty for a Clery violation to $150,000.
But even with the current fines, few schools pay penalties. Since 2012, only eleven schools have been issued notices for violations and proposed fines.
What’s even more troubling to people like Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, is the number of schools that aren’t reporting at all. Or rather, their reports don’t match reality.
“We have universities with 20,000 and 30,000 people on campus claiming to have zero rapes,” LoMonte said. “And the Department of Education just accepts the report, files it, posts it on the web and says thank you.”
Higher numbers of reported rapes can be a good thing, Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center said. They usually mean more women feel safe enough to come forward and report their assaults.
From 2010 to 2012, 30 percent of colleges and universities with over 1,000 students reported zero forcible sex offenses. If large colleges are regularly reporting zero assaults, women either aren’t coming forward or numbers are getting fudged, Kiss and LoMonte said.
“There is every incentive to lie because the Department of Education is so ineffective at auditing people that you’re almost certain to get away with it,” LoMonte said.
The Department of Education has published reports citing violations at 19 schools since 2012, but oftentimes, investigations drag on for years.
‘Do you feel safe?’
During her keynote speech at the conference, McCaskill called Clery ineffective and a mess. She suggested scrapping it entirely and replacing it with what her bill calls a “campus climate survey.”
“The campus climate survey is really what parents want,” McCaskill said. “The campus climate survey is going to ask kids, ‘Do you think your school is trying to do a good job? Have you been told where you can go if you were assaulted? Do you feel safe?’”
But the climate survey would gauge only students’ feelings and opinions about campus safety. It wouldn’t produce hard data on campus crime.
LoMonte said he thinks McCaskill is well-intentioned, but that her aims are misplaced.
“I think that she is probably awakening to the reality that those statistics are not worth the paper they’re printed on,” LoMonte said. “When you realize how unreliable the numbers are, it makes you question whether the reports are helpful.”
But that is an argument for better enforcement of the Clery requirements, LoMonte said, not to remove them.
“It just shouldn’t be that hard to count crime,” LoMonte said. “Colleges seem to struggle with this, and they have such a hard time with it. But that’s because they have every incentive to downplay the numbers and very little incentive to tell the truth.
McCaskill’s communications director did not respond to several requests for clarification on her comments about the Clery Act.
Reach reporter Nadia Dreid at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-1491.