New guidelines may provoke confusion as Clery Act marks its 20th

Jeanne Clery lost her life in April 1986, but there is no telling how many lives have been saved since then due to her family’s tireless work to make sure that college students have adequate warning of campus safety threats.

The Jeanne Clery Act took effect twenty year ago (November 8, 1990), an enduring memorial to the 19-year-old Lehigh University student who was murdered in her dorm room by a fellow student. Her parents, Howard and Connie, discovered that Lehigh, like many colleges of the time, had no effective warning system to give students notice when they are at heightened risk of violent attack.

In response to the family’s lobbying, Congress enacted the Clery Act to require that colleges give “timely” warning (recently upgraded to “immediate” warning) when a dangerous criminal is believed to be at work on campus. The Act requires each college to make readily available an up-to-date daily log of serious crimes on campus, and to distribute a yearly statistical recap of crime each Oct. 1.

(Clery represents the bare minimum of information to which journalists are entitled. Compliance with the Act is no substitute for also complying with any applicable public-records laws, which apply to police incident reports at virtually all public colleges and even some private ones. To learn more about the interaction of the federal Clery law with state public-records laws — and in which states journalists may be able to obtain incident reports from private as well as public colleges — check out the SPLC’s “Covering Campus Crime” guide.)

According to the advocacy organization founded by the Clery family, Security on Campus, Inc., the U.S. Department of Education has revised its guidelines for what type of crime qualifies as a “burglary” for Clery reporting purposes. The change took effect for the annual crime report that was due Oct. 1, 2010.

Under the new guidance, a crime can be classified as a “theft” (and thus not reportable) if there is no evidence of unlawful entry into a structure. For example, if a laptop goes missing from a dorm room, then — in the absence of evidence that the computer was taken by a break-in artist as opposed to an invited guest — the police can assume that the thief entered consensually and categorize the crime as theft, not burglary.

This revision brings the Clery guidelines in line with how the FBI defines burglary for purposes of its Uniform Crime Reporting system, but it is likely to produce some curious statistics for the next year or two as burglary stats drop off precipitously. The revision reinforces the need for journalists to dig deeply when faced with suspicious-looking statistics. While a drastic dip in reported crimes can be evidence of intentional manipulation, innocent explanations are also possible.