Colleges conflicted after US eases crime-reporting rule

Trump move welcomed as regulatory relief, but some onlookers expressed fears over effects on students

October 30, 2020
Source: istock

The Trump administration has rescinded guidance on how US colleges should track and report campus crimes, easing a regulatory and financial burden but raising concerns about overall student safety.

The move concerns the Clery Act, a 1990 law named after a Lehigh University student killed in her dormitory that requires institutions to track and report crime data in their local area.

US colleges have not actively protested the law, although some have grown concerned over the paperwork burden, the federal interference it encouraged, the threat of substantial fines for violations and doubts over how much the overall effort actually helps students.

The leading umbrella group for US higher education, the American Council on Education, offered praise for the move − marking a relatively rare positive response to a Trump administration initiative.

“We think this is a welcome development,” said Terry Hartle, the council’s senior vice-president for government relations. “It’s consistent with the deregulation agenda that we would normally expect to see from a Republican administration.”

As a law, the Clery Act itself cannot be revoked without the approval of Congress. Instead, the administration announced that the federal government will no longer observe a 260-page handbook of accumulated guidance for colleges on how to handle specific situations.

Major effects of that change, according to several Clery Act experts, include lowering the number of campus officials considered legally required to report potential crimes and shrinking the geographical areas that institutions must consider in their data collection.

Fines against colleges for failures to report data as required by the Clery Act generally run to tens of thousands of dollars, but two of the biggest sanctions ran into the millions and involved infamous sexual assault cases. They are the $4.5 million (£3.5 million) fine last year against Michigan State University over sports doctor Larry Nassar and the $2.4 million fine in 2016 against Pennsylvania State University over football coach Jerry Sandusky.

The administration’s change is unlikely to preclude large fines in similarly egregious cases in the future, said Alison Dougherty, associate vice-president of human resources and Title IX coordinator at Widener University.

But in more routine situations, Dr Dougherty said, where universities may overlook some crime-related data, the formal cancellation of the federal handbook could give institutions more latitude to escape legal liability.

That is not necessarily a positive development for student well-being, she said. “I would be concerned if an institution sees this as an opportunity to dial back some of what they’re doing,” said Dr Dougherty, a former executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, a non-profit advocate of campus crime reporting.

Abigail Boyer, a current associate executive director of the Clery Center, offered a similar assessment. The federal handbook “was a really critical resource, especially for some of the common technical questions that institutions have”, she said.

“We do have some concerns about removing it entirely, only because I don’t think the questions are going to go away − there’s just going to be one fewer resource to address them,” Ms Boyer added.

The director of Clery compliance at the US Education Department, James L. Moore III, said administration officials have generally limited him from discussing the matter.

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