TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Department of Education focuses renewed attention on campus crime disclosure

Federal law requires all colleges to generate an annual public snapshot of serious crimes on their campuses, but many of the reported statistics appear implausibly small or are inconsistent with other agencies’ data.

The U.S. Department of Education, which is responsible for enforcing the disclosure requirements in the 1990 Jeanne Clery Act, has started taking notice.

This week, the DOE  issued a critical report upbraiding the University of Vermont for omitting 20 of 22 reported sex offenses on its Burlington campus from its 2007 statistics. UVM officials called the omission a good-faith mistake based on their understanding at the time that anonymous reports to the campus rape-crisis center, rather than police, were not to be included in the Clery report.

(In fact, federal regulations explicitly say that reports to any employee with safety responsibilities, not just police, must be tallied in the annual crime totals even if no police investigation occurs. For more information about your school’s reporting obligations under the federal law, see the SPLC’s Student Media Guide to the Clery Act.)

As part of its newfound effort to audit colleges’ compliance with the Clery Act, the DOE has started doing what reporters have always been able to do — compare the campuses’ self-disclosed numbers against those reported by law enforcement to the FBI.

To do your own sleuthing, check out the FBI’s “Crime in the United States” reporting system, available online here. Like Clery Act reports, these FBI compilations can run a year delayed, so they’re useful mostly for tracking historical trends.

Department of Education regulations require that, for Clery reporting purposes, colleges define crimes in accordance with the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) offense definitions, so a college should not be able to excuse underreporting by claiming that its definition of crimes differs from that used by the FBI. (In fact, since the duty to disclose applies even to crimes never reported to police, colleges’ self-reported Clery numbers should logically always be higher than those kept by the FBI, and in no event should be lower.)

Take note that the DOE’s correspondence with Vermont became public because it was disclosed by an outside watchdog group, Security on Campus, Inc. Because colleges aren’t necessarily going to be distributing news releases boasting how they were chewed out by federal regulators, it’s a good habit to drop periodic freedom-of-information requests on the college president’s office for any correspondence between the college and the DOE involving Clery Act compliance (and, for good measure, involving any alleged civil-rights violations, which the DOE also polices). It never hurts to use the federal Freedom-of-Information Act to copy that same request to the nearest regional office of the DOE as well.