Opinion: Crime reporting isn't creating safer campuses

Mark Naida and Graham Piro

The U.S. Department of Education in December released a scathing 46-page report finding that Michigan State University had violated the Clery Act in its handling of the Larry Nassar scandal. And now the university faces a hefty financial penalty. 

Michigan is no stranger to these fines. Under the Clery Act, which mandates universities report crime statistics, schools face a maximum of $55,907 per violation. Eastern Michigan University was fined $350,000 for failing to report a murder on campus in 2008, a record at the time. And late last year, Wayne State University was fined $127,500 for mishandling reports two years in a row, though the fines were later dropped.

Hiring more security officers would provide far more value for campus safety than an extra person filing a report that often gets ignored, Naida and Piro say.

Now, Michigan State University may face the largest in the history the law, even more than the $2,397,000 fine Penn State University had to pay following the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

But are these fines and reports actually making campuses safer for students? 

Even for colleges not dealing with front-page scandal, the requirements of the Clery Act put pressure on institutions to keep in step with federal regulation, whether it is effective or not. The law is certainly not the only bureaucratic red tape that constricts institutions, but it certainly contributes, as several studies have highlighted.

The law has sought to make universities more transparent and accountable. It was named for Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old Lehigh University student, who was raped and murdered in 1986 in her dorm room on campus.

In the aftermath of the tragic event, Clery’s parents said that if they had known the university’s crime record, they would not have sent her there.

Clery’s parents became crusaders for increased transparency of on-campus crime, and in 1990, Congress passed the act requiring an annual security report be distributed by Oct. 1 of each year. Any college or university that participates in a federal financial aid program must comply. 

Government reach grows 

The Department of Education keeps track of how universities follow the act, and potential penalties for failing to comply with the act include suspension, fines, or expulsion from a federal financial aid program.

Lawmakers crafted the legislation in response to a horrendous crime, and following other crimes, they have continued to heap more regulations and compliance burdens on universities by expanding reporting mandates.

Abigail Boyer, interim executive director at the Clery Center, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping university officials meet the standards of the law, explains how the act spurred several pieces of legislation for mandated college crime reporting.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights Act, which compelled campuses to codify a bill of rights for survivors of sexual assault, ensuring the right for a sexual assault survivor to be treated with dignity and the right to mental health counseling.

Police monitor the crowd outside of Michigan Stadium before a football game against Ohio State University in Ann Arbor, November 25, 2017.

The most significant addition to the Clery Act came from the Obama administration when it reauthorized and amended the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. The adjustments added reporting requirements concerning dating and domestic violence, including stalking.

The act’s definitions can be broad and unclear for schools. One example is confusion over what qualifies as a “campus” when it comes to locations not within schools' immediate campuses.

“That’s an area where the guidance or the regulations could possibly more clearly speak to so that campuses can have a better understanding,” Boyer says.

By relying on students to report crimes, which can be dependent on the number of security officers on campus, the act introduces several variables that can cause widely different crime rates between schools.

Professors Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider write in “More Than You Wanted to Know: the Failure of Mandated Disclosure” that the act’s incentives could be self-defeating: “The more policing you do and the more you encourage students to report crimes, the worse your report looks.”

Compliance trumps safety 

A number of studies have raised questions concerning the law's efficacy.

One such study, conducted by John L. Sullivan, included interviews with a number of Clery Act officers at several Colorado universities. He found that most of the officers he interviewed believed that having a dedicated Clery Act officer on staff was essential to compliance with the act and that many of the interviewees said their roles focused more on compliance with the federal law than making the information contained in the reports easy to understand.

Clery Act reporting statistics are not easily accessible and, though they were originally meant to better inform parents about crime incidents on college campuses, an earlier study by S. M Janosik showed that few parents knew those statistics were available and did not inform the college decisions of their children.

As Janosik said in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education: “I would rather have a police officer doing an educational program, making rounds of the campus, trying to create safer environments, than I would have that individual behind a desk flipping through reports and tallying frequencies.”

Sullivan concluded the fear of being audited by the Department of Education and having to pay a $35,000 fine appeared to be the greatest motivation driving the presentation of Clery Act information.

Even if campus administrators didn't compile crime data, these statistics are readily available elsewhere. The FBI separately collects reports from campus police as well as local and state law enforcement agencies through its Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

Many  Clery Act reports are also hard to read. The University of Michigan’s report is 43-pages of procedural information, addresses, and large graphs. For a concerned parent wanting to make sure their student is safe on campus, there are other places that offer information more clearly.

Ben-Shahar and Schneider write that not many potential students read these reports anyway, and even if they did, “the disclosures mean little to most readers” since the reporting methodology is unclear.

Campus administrations have been forced to keep in step with federal regulation that does little to make campus safer.

Students are 30 percent more likely to be victims of violent crime off-campus than on-campus, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime.

Detroit’s Wayne State University reported 274 safety-related incidents involving students on or near campus in 2017, and about 80 percent of those incidents involved unlawful possession of alcohol, drugs or guns. According to the FBI, the rest of Detroit had 13,796 violent crimes — murder, rape, assault and robbery — reported in 2017.

With students milling about at all hours of the night and robust campus security units patrolling the well-lit promenades of American universities, one of the safest places to be in America is on a college campus.

Weighing cost against benefit

Campus security and police bear most of the costs of these federal requirements.

Installing blue light telephones that can connect directly to a dispatch center, using security cameras and hiring more security officers to patrol campus would provide far more value for campus safety than an extra person filing a report that often gets ignored.

While the Clery Act marked an important step towards transparency in higher education, the unintended consequence of the legislation promoted the expansion of bureaucracies and the administrative workload.

It would be more effective to allow colleges to manage their own safety and security priorities without cumbersome disclosure laws.

Mark Naida is editorial page fellow at the Detroit News.

Graham Piro is a reporter at the College Fix.