Federal government increases focus on crime awareness requirements
In the midst of several high-profile criminal acts, the federal government has increased their focus on ensuring colleges and universities are in compliance with crime awareness requirements. While regulations have existed in some form for decades, many institutions may have overlooked their importance. However, following recent on-campus incidents, the Department of Education (ED) has been under increased scrutiny, and has therefore renewed their emphasis on compliance. Given the high stakes involved, it is imperative for colleges and universities to do the same.
Congress established the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act in 1990, developing legislation that has been adapted several times since. The act was amended and eventually renamed the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. Commonly known as the "Clery Act," it was amended by the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008, to ensure students, parents and staff are properly informed about campus safety. Institutions with ineffective processes, or incorrect or incomplete crime information, can face considerable disciplinary action.
There are several violations that can result in potentially significant financial penalties to an institution. Sanctions are most commonly levied against institutions that:
- Have policies and procedures statements that are not compliant
- Neglect to publish or distribute an annual crime report to students and staff by Oct. 1
- Fail to implement a system to log all required categories of crimes
Regardless of the size of the institution, the same compliance responsibilities apply for all colleges and universities that participate in federal Title IV student aid programs. From the smallest colleges to the largest universities, many institutions have experienced compliance gaps or oversight issues that have resulted in significant financial penalties. These include:
- Eastern Michigan fined $357,000*
- Virginia Tech fined $55,000*
- Washington State fined $82,500*
- Tarleton State fined $137,500 (reduced to $27,500)*
In addition to the institutions previously mentioned, another large university was recently cited for violations and is subject to up to a $27,500 fine per infraction. ED officials are also currently evaluating possible sanctions against Penn State, in light of the recent allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
ED looks at the college as a whole, meaning if a campus official having any campus security authority (which can be very broadly defined) is aware of an incident, then the institution knows, regardless of whether it is communicated to the right person and through the proper channels. It is critical to develop policies and procedures that are in accordance with ED guidelines and that a chain of communication is clearly defined. Communication between campus officials is critical and is the key to a successful crime reporting effort.
Compliance is a daunting task, and one that cannot be accomplished with the effort of one individual. While a coordinator can be responsible for the effectiveness of crime reporting efforts, cooperation is necessary on every level, from the president's office down to campus security. ED has developed several resources to detail best practices for compliance with federal government regulations, and avoidance of financial penalties:
- The Handbook for Campus Crime Reporting is a comprehensive document that provides detailed information for compliance with the Clery Act
- The Higher Education Opportunity Act details requirements regarding emergency response, timely warnings, fire safety and missing persons
- The National Center for Education Statistics has published a document titled: Information Required to be Disclosed Under the Higher Education Act of 1965: Suggestions for Dissemination
It is important to follow the guidelines presented in these documents very closely, as in recent reviews, ED has cited schools for their wording within their policies. With the low priority previously assigned to crime reporting, it is possible for potential issues or incorrect reporting procedures to have gone unnoticed for years. If there is any doubt about current practices, it would be beneficial to review the literature that ED has published.
Above all, it is important to be open and honest about your institution. When ED conducts their program reviews, FBI agents are now often included. They have access to crime reporting from the state and local levels to determine whether statistics are consistent. Although it may not be intentional, if there are inconsistencies, they are likely to be discovered.
These regulations are in place to help prospective students and parents make informed decisions, as well as to protect those currently on campus by providing accurate information regarding criminal activity. The safety of your students and staff should be your top priority; these regulations help to emphasize that importance and encourage transparency. Non-compliance with these regulations could result in significant financial penalties from the federal government, considerable reputational damage to the institution and more importantly, compromising the safety of students and staff.
* Fines may have been reduced through the appeals process.