TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Trust, but verify — looking behind Clery Act crime reports should be an annual newsroom to-do

If you’re a news reporter on a college campus — especially one that’s reticent about answering requests for information — Christmas comes next Monday. But as with many of the best holiday gifts, this one comes with some assembly required.

Oct. 1 is the deadline for all colleges that accept federal money — and that includes even private ones that accept federal financial aid, which is virtually all of them — to distribute the “campus security report” that notifies the public of the last three years’ worth of serious crimes by category.

These reports are a foundational requirement of the federal Jeanne Clery Act, a 1990 statute that entitles the public to up-to-date daily crime logs and a yearly statistical compilation of crime on property that is owned, used or patrolled by colleges and universities.

Judging by the frequency with which even large institutions report zero crimes, Clery remains mystifying to many schools even 22 years after its enactment. That’s why these statistical reports should be only the start, and not the end, of a reporter’s digging. It’s no public service to proclaim “another crime-free year!” if that conclusion is based on junk data.

Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education — which is in charge of enforcing Clery compliance — publishes a user-friendly handbook that spells out what the Department believes the law requires.

Among the many myths that the DOE handbook explodes: Crimes must be disclosed even if they are treated as disciplinary infractions and never criminally prosecuted. And they must be counted even if reported to someone other than the police — anyone with “campus safety” as part of his or her responsibilities (everyone from the athletic director to a resident assistant in a dorm) has a duty to make sure that known crimes get logged.

For journalists, getting started couldn’t be easier. The Department of Education now maintains a searchable online database of Clery annual reports (though no requester should have to go through the DOE, as campuses are required to make the reports public themselves).

The SPLC’s Sara Gregory and Seth Zweifler have compiled a step-by-step walk-through that explains how to make sense of colleges’ Clery Act filings — and how to catch colleges that are underreporting potentially dangerous conditions. Among their tips:

  • Check with the federal DOE to see if your college has been the subject of a complaint or audit involving the accuracy of its crime numbers.
  • Create a spreadsheet (or use the downloadable one SPLC has provided online) and start comparing your college’s statistics against the records of each individual incident at the police or public safety department. This might cost you a couple of hours and some paper cuts, but you might be amazed to find that serious crimes showing up in police incident reports never make it onto the public Clery log.
  • If you find oddities or suspicious omissions in campus crime reporting, let the SPLC know.

In addition to contacting the SPLC, students seeking Clery guidance should take advantage of walking encyclopedia Dan Carter at the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, who has worked with Congress on crime-disclosure legislation since the earliest days of the Clery Act.