WEST VIRGINIA — A private university is facing what experts call the first significant fine for violating a federal law that requires universities to disclose information about crimes committed on campus.
The $250,000 fine levied against Salem International University, formerly Salem-Teikyo University, is the biggest ever for violating the Clery Act, a federal law that requires all colleges and universities to keep and maintain publicly accessible crime logs, annually report crime statistics and warn the campus community about security threats.
A U.S. Department of Education investigation found that, among other things, Salem International University failed to report numerous campus crimes between 1997 and 1999, including five forcible sex offenses and three robberies, and failed to issue timely reports about threats on campus. The DOE enforces the Clery Act.
The DOE’s investigation report stated the university’s Office of Campus Security was underfunded, receiving only $2,075 in 2000. It also found that security personnel were required to perform non-campus safety related duties, such as maintenance and picking up newspapers and watering the lawn for the university’s president when he was out of town.
“With regard to the [Clery] Act, such an impairment may result in the campus community being deprived of important security information,” the DOE stated.
The DOE reduced the fine from an original proposal of $385,000. According to Security on Campus, a campus crime watchdog group, the $385,000 fine comprised 14 separate fines of $27,500, the maximum fine for one violation of the Clery Act.
Richard Baxter, SIU vice president of university advancement, said the university has appealed the fine to the DOE, but would not comment on its specifics. Before the appeal was made, however, Baxter cited undisclosed DOE “errors or misinterpretations in the statute.”
He added the fine should get the attention of other universities.
“It sends a signal that you must take this particular act and others very seriously,” Baxter said.
S. Daniel Carter, Security on Campus senior vice president, said that even if the fine was reduced on appeal, it would get the attention of other institutions.
“Schools are being put on notice that it will cost them more to be dishonest about their crime information than to be honest about it and provide students, especially student journalists, information about crime on campus,” Carter said.
Carter said fines are needed to ensure student safety.
“If a school can fudge on their statistics and things don’t look as dangerous as they actually are, you have justification for spending less on security,” Carter said.
Kenneth Willett, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and public safety director at the University of Montana, called the fine a “double-edged sword.”
“Huge fines do get your attention … but at some point, you’re cutting into your funds [that would have paid for] additional lighting and hire extra people,” Willett said.
Mount St. Clare College in Clinton, Iowa, is the only other institution fined for Clery Act violations since the act’s inception in 1990, according to Security on Campus.
The school was ordered to pay $15,000 in 2000. In 2002, Mount St. Clare College became the Franciscan University.
Carter urges student journalists who believe their campus police may be in violation of the Clery Act to contact their DOE regional office, Security on Campus or the Student Press Law Center.