Un-covering crime

In April 2002 a student was raped at the University of Wyoming. The student newspaper, The Branding Iron, sought to publish the incident report. But when campus police released the report to them, officers deleted the names of the victim, assailant and witnesses, along with information about where the crime took place on campus. What remained was a sparse narrative, which editors said was not enough to write a news story.

The Branding Iron sought legal action against the campus police to obtain more detailed records. This year’s editor, Mike Owens, continued the legal battle not only to access the incident reports but also against the administration, which will not allow him to use newspaper funds to sue the campus police.

‘We have never asked for the names of the alleged victims and perpetrators,’ Owens said. ‘But we want to know the witnesses and locations of the rapes. It is an issue of campus safety.’

Although many student journalists do not know it by name, the federal Clery Act provides them the right to campus crime information. The Clery Act, as part of the Higher Education Act, is up for renewal this year by Congress and any changes made to it could affect how student journalists report on crimes that occur on campus.

Under the Clery Act, all colleges and universities that receive federal funding are required to release an annual crime statistics report, a daily crime log and ‘timely warnings’ about crimes that present an ongoing threat to students and employees. But since the act was originally passed in 1990 (then known as the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act), several colleges and universities have faced allegations of underreporting campus crime and many have pursued other means to keep campus police reports and campus judicial hearings under wraps.

Lobbyists from all perspectives have issued recommendations this year on how they think the law should be revised. Some organizations, representing the interests of colleges and universities, have called for the crime reporting requirements to be simplified while campus safety advocates are urging for more crime disclosure and stronger enforcement of violations.

This winter, Congress approved $750,000 for the creation of a Clery Act handbook, which will outline the obligations imposed by the act. But it is unknown if legislators will push for revisions to the act when it goes up for renewal later this year.

The handbook may come as a boon for student journalists, whose own lack of knowledge about the act already impairs their coverage of campus crimes.

Knowledge of the law

Dennis Gregory, a professor at Old Dominion University, has done research on the effects of the Clery Act in partnership with Virginia Tech professor Steven Janosik. In one study, he found that students are most affected by reports in the campus media, including timely notices, campus safety announcements and training programs, rather than the annual report.

‘What we’ve seen in our research, the [annual statistics] section particularly has not had any impact or at least very little impact on changing student behaviors,’ Gregory said.

Carolyn Carlson, the vice chair of the Freedom of Information Subcommittee on Campus Crime at the Society of Professional Journalists, also noted that the annual report is not a primary source of information for most news stories.

‘It’s a once a year story when it gets reported on,’ she said. ‘Its ongoing value is as a source document or as a source of crime information so that … [students] have a way to put the current crime in context, now.’

Students do not often use the Clery Act, Carlson said, and some do not even know that it exists as a tool for research.

Sacramento Bee reporter Terri Hardy did not know about the act until she co-wrote a series for the California daily newspaper detailing the underreporting of sexual assaults at the University of California at Davis.

‘We were probably already a couple of weeks or more into the reporting before we even realized that there was this law,’ Hardy said. ‘I think I happened upon it trying to do some computer research on statistics.’

She found that university officials also knew little of the act. The series prompted Security On Campus, a national watchdog organization, to file a complaint with the Department of Education against the school. The department investigated reporting practices throughout the University of California system and determined its campuses were not reporting certain crimes and were categorizing others incorrectly. In April the DOE reported that the UC system had overhauled its policies in compliance with Clery.

Charles McFadden, a spokesperson for the UC system, said that campus officials originally had to deal with several ways of classifying crime as well as ambiguous definitions of how far a ‘campus’ extended.

‘The Clery Act is a complicated piece of legislation and is subject to varying interpretations and has been subject to varying interpretations,’ he said. ‘The accusation against the UC system from Security On Campus and the Bee story caused us to re-examine our compliance, and we did.’

Security On Campus also has filed complaints against St. Mary’s College in California and Salem International University in West Virginia, accusing them of underreporting crime statistics. In March Security On Campus asked the Department of Education to impose a record $2.3 million fine against Salem for failure to properly report 84 serious crimes between 1997 and 1999.

Since the series on UC system, Hardy has found some other uses for the act.

‘In public safety stories I’ve written, I’ve used that law to make [the university] let me see the crime logs,’ Hardy said. ‘But really I think that it’s not so much a journalistic tool as it is supposed to be for students and employees to get a picture of what’s going on campus.’

Covering crime

At the University of Tennessee at Martin, the police and the student newspaper, The Pacer, are at odds with one another.

‘We’ll try to go and get stuff from the office of public safety,’ editor Matt Crouch said. ‘By the time [the police create a report], if they do anything, [officers have] already sent it over to student affairs and they say it’s part of the student’s personal record and they can’t release it.’

When The Pacer reports on crime, reporters do not name those involved because the police do not consistently provide them.

‘The really small things and things nobody really cares about, they leave the names in the report,’ Crouch said. ‘The things that someone might actually want to know who did that, they delete it out. So we just don’t run any of the names to be fair to everyone.’

Nor does The Pacer really fight it, Crouch said.

‘UT-Martin is a real small school and nothing ever really happens,’ he explained. ‘[If] something big comes along, we’ll fight it. … You’ve got to pick your battles. And we really haven’t had a battle big enough to fight.’

Deciding which battles to fight, and how hard, is affected by the near-constant turnover of student journalists and the social mores that they were brought up with.

‘Students inherently think of themselves as short-timers,’ said Larry Lain, adviser to the Flyer News at the University of Dayton in Ohio. ‘And we have a campus that’s basically filled with what you’d call nice kids.’

Students who are unwilling to get stuck in a drawn-out legal battle over records have, in many cases, limited campus crime coverage to the regular police blotter. But student editors say that this is an area of coverage that they want to work on.

‘I think we could probably do a better job of covering the back end of things,’ said Brian McNeill, editor in chief of Virginia Tech’s The Collegiate Times, ‘just [by] following the cases through to their conclusions because sometimes they slip through the cracks if you don’t follow up on a story.’

Covering campus courts

Much of the debate over campus crimes is centered on the campus judicial system. Colleges frequently rule on criminal allegations against students in their campus judiciary, but the disciplinary sanctions that result from those hearings are almost always kept confidential.

This secrecy is most often attributed to the federal Family Educational Records and Privacy Act. Under FERPA, a school can lose its federal funding if it has a ‘policy or practice of permitting the release of [students’] education records … without the written consent’ of the students involved.

While this law was enacted to maintain the privacy of students’ academic records, other records made or kept by an institution of higher learning often have been interpreted as such ‘education records.’ Therefore, the argument goes, campus judicial records are part of a student’s education records and cannot be released without risk of losing federal funds.

FERPA, also known as the Buckley Amendment, was amended in 1991 to make clear that it does not limit the release of campus police or security department reports. And in 1998, Congress changed the law to allow, but not require, the release of the outcome of disciplinary proceedings where a student is found responsible for behavior that would constitute a crime of violence or nonforcible sex offense.

Still many student journalists seem to accept that judicial records are closed and do not pursue them.

‘We typically don’t cover the … campus judicial system just because they are all closed records,’ McNeill said. ‘You can get the outcomes, I guess, but we just … cover police stories.’

At Georgetown University, the outcome of a judicial hearing is given only to the alleged victim and then only if he or she signs an agreement not to disclose that information to anyone else. This school year a Georgetown student filed a complaint with the Department of Education after the university threatened to discipline her if she told others what sanctions were handed down to the student who allegedly raped her. The DOE has since reaffirmed that the Clery Act requires schools to disclose that information unconditionally to alleged victims.

Yet some observers said that despite notable exceptions, the student media and the student judicial officials coexist peacefully more often than not.

‘I don’t think that there is [an] adversarial relationship with student journalists,’ said John Zacker, president of the Association for Student Judicial Affairs. ‘Generally, [schools] are compliant, and we provide to [students] what we can, and they know what they can’t get.’

Possible changes to the law

What students can and cannot get is up for debate in Congress as lobbyists make their rounds.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, an organization that represents the interests of almost 1,000 private colleges and universities nationwide, released a position statement in January, calling for campus crime reports, among other reporting requirements, to be ‘simplified or eliminated.’ The NAICU later clarified its position in a letter to Congress, saying that it did not intend for the Clery Act to be done away with.

‘We are asking that its reporting provisions be examined to make campus crime information more useful to students and their families,’ wrote the association’s president, David Warren.

Zacker said the Association for Student Judicial Affairs also considers the reporting requirements, for which schools do not specifically receive federal funds, to be an area that needs revision.

‘The bureaucratic reporting of data, as it’s required, consumes a tremendous amount of time, and I’ve not seen evidence that it has changed anything,’ Zacker said.

Security On Campus has proposed several provisions that would strengthen the law.

Under one proposal, records regarding arrests for public intoxication and driving under the influence would be required to be disclosed.

The organization also recommends that the annual crime report include a policy that would inform the campus community that violations of the Clery Act can be filed with the Department of Education. Under the provision, whistle-blowers would be provided protection from retaliation by the institution.

The SPJ campus crime subcommittee is proposing that schools must disclose the results of disciplinary measures involving serious crimes. Moreover, Carlson said schools should have to disclose that information as well as the final results disciplinary hearings for students who are found innocent. Security On Campus also supports a proposal to make the release of disciplinary outcomes mandatory.

In an article published in the fall 2002 Stetson Law Review, Gregory and Janosik also recommended that funding should be provided for research and the production of the Clery Act statistics. They said they would like to see the opposing sides working together to create safer campuses.

‘Everyone seems to be talking at one another and accusing them of not following through correctly or overstating problems or whatever the case may be,’ Gregory said. ‘So creating mechanisms for people to sit down and talk about the bottom line, which is ways to improve campus safety, that’s really what we should all be about.’

But until such provisions are made to increase the quantity and quality of campus crime information available, student journalists must rely on what they already have to provide the most comprehensive picture of crime at their campus.

‘By going to the Clery Act to get stats,’ Carlson said, ‘then it becomes part of their routine. …. Once it becomes part of their routine, then I could see student journalists becoming more interested in looking at the bigger picture and using these statistics to compare … their crime situation with that of schools in other areas.’

CLERY ACT: the facts
?The Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990? was renamed in 1998 as the Clery Act after provisions expanded the reporting requirements and a campus sexual assault victim?s bill of rights were added.

The ?Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act? requires colleges and universities to release campus crime information in three main venues: by publishing an annual campus crime statistics report, maintaining a daily campus crime log and publicizing ?timely warnings? of crimes that pose an ongoing threat to the campus community.

The annual report, which must be released by Oct. 1 each year, contains crime statistics for the three most recent calendar years. Included in the report must be a statement of current campus crime policies and procedures for reporting crimes or emergencies. An institution with separate campuses must comply with the requirements for each campus.

Crime statistics must be kept for: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, negligent manslaughter, forcible sex offenses, nonforcible sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, arson, arrests for liquor law and drug law violations and illegal weapons possession. Statistics for anybody not arrested but referred for campus disciplinary actions for liquor law, drug law violations and illegal weapons possession must also be reported. Universities must also release statistics for hate crimes, categorized by prejudice.

The university must release a geographic breakdown of the crime statistics in four categories: on campus, in dormitories or other residential facilities on campus, in or around noncampus property and on public property.

The crime log must be maintained by the campus police or campus security department. It must be easily understood and contain incidents, recorded by date, which happened within the patrol jurisdiction of the campus police or were reported to them. Each entry must include the nature of the incident, the date, the time, the general location of the incident and the disposition of the complaint. Entries or additions to entries must be made within two business days. Logs from the past 60 days must be available during business hours as well.

The school must issue a ?timely warning? for hate crimes, other crimes reported in the annual statistics or any crime that presents a threat to students and employees.

Pending legislation in three states may profoundly affect how journalists report on students and campus crime.

The Tennessee Senate is considering a bill that would require colleges and universities to disclose final results of hearings to the alleged victim of a crime of violence or a nonforcible sex offense, regardless of the outcome. In cases where the accused is found guilty of a crime of violence or a nonforcible sex offense, the school would be clearly allowed to release the results under bill 272.

In Illinois, proposed legislation would require the state to conduct a crime statistics audit of six public universities every three years. The audit would assess how accurate each school?s reported statistics are, although no punishment would be assigned for schools whose crime reports were inaccurate. House bill 344 would also require the state Auditor General, who reviews the use of public funds and state agencies? compliance with laws and regulations, and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to provide Web site links to the schools? crime statistics.

Finally, the New Jersey Senate is considering a bill that would lock up any record related to elementary and secondary students. Senate bill 642 would bar the release of any information without a parent or guardian?s consent unless municipal laws are passed to the contrary. The law would apply to ?any record held by a municipality or any instrumentality within or created by a municipality or combination of municipalities.? Critics say that the bill is too broad and could limit reporting on the honor roll, sports and other school activities by denying the media access to all records.