Conference honors 25th anniversary of Clery Act, stresses need for more transparency

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Educators, campus police officers, victim advocates and attorneys gathered Friday at a conference in the Newseum to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, which requires campuses receiving federal money to publish an annual report of campus crime data.

All of them had some connection to the law, whether they helped prepare the report each year, investigated the crimes within it or worked to reform its structure. But the law was most central to one person in the room — Connie Clery, the mother of Jeanne, the law’s namesake, who was raped and murdered in her dorm room at Lehigh University in 1986.

Clery, who co-founded the Clery Center for Security on Campus, described how her most nightmarish experience galvanized a nationwide fight for transparency in campus crime.

“This is my dream, Howard’s dream, Jeanne’s dream,” Clery said, referring to her late husband, Howard Clery. “Your work is difficult work. However, we have a lot more work to do.”

The Clery family found strength in the fight for campus safety and helped other families in the process, said Jim Moore, director and compliance manager of the Clery Act Compliance Division at the U.S. Department of Education.

“They took a tragedy and turned it into a movement,” Moore said.

Under the Clery Act, colleges that receive federal money must also maintain a daily crime log and produce an annual report detailing security policies, in addition to the annual report of campus crime statistics. While the Clery Act revolutionized campus crime transparency, Moore said the law encompasses more than crunching numbers.

“The Clery Act is not about some test, a set of regulations,” he said. “It’s about what led to the law in the first place.”

He said some universities still struggle with correctly reporting crime statistics. In a groundbreaking investigation published last year by the Student Press Law Center and the Columbus Dispatch, reporters found that universities across the country have systematically underreported sexual assault on campus, with many colleges claiming in their Clery reports never to have experienced a violent crime on campus.

“Some of them still don’t get it,” Moore said. “The public increasingly cares about this.”

Since the Clery Act was enacted into law in 1990, students, parents and journalists have audited colleges’ compliance, often finding discrepancies between the annual security report and campus and local police reports.

Much of the conference’s discussions centered around 2013 Clery Act provisions requiring campuses to report statistics on sexual assault, dating and domestic violence and stalking. The changes, which came with the federal reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, have revealed cracks in campus sexual assault responses that have spawned activism and reform efforts nationwide.

Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, lamented the previously “jaw-droppingly non-compliant” sexual assault policy at the University of Virginia, which revamped its procedures in September in response to a blistering department probe that found many issues with its handling of sexual assault cases.

Lhamon said the previous policy included an “informal resolution process” where accusers would meet with the accused and talk about what happened — and the university could impose penalties on the accused for remarks made during these meetings.

“That’s the definition of a kangaroo court,” Lhamon said. She praised the new policy as “exemplary” for including a clear statement of non-discrimination, establishing a centralized office to respond to sexual assault complaints, creating specialized counseling positions and training programs and providing a “fair process for all involved” in sexual assault proceedings.

She also emphasized sexual assault policy turnarounds on other campuses, such as Michigan State University, where she said students complained of sexual harassment by a university counselor that the school continued to employ after learning of the allegations.

“I’m deeply distressed that it is in this century that we’re having this conversation,” Lhamon said.

Maureen Rush, vice president for public safety and superintendent of the University of Pennsylvania police department, framed a federal audit of her campus crime procedures as an “immediate wake-up call.”

“It has become a much wider responsibility, which makes people pay attention,” Rush said.

Karen Pennington, a veteran higher-education administrator who joined Rush in a panel discussion on how leaders can support Clery Act transparency, said progress in campus safety can sometimes take counterintuitive forms. For example, she said when sexual assault numbers rise on campus, she has assured concerned parents that it’s a sign of robust campus reporting procedure.

“That’s a very positive thing,” she said. If more students feel comfortable reporting sexual assault — which is vastly underreported on campus and off — then it’s a good sign for the campus environment, she said.

Several panelists at the conference spoke out against the 2015 Safe Campus Act, a bill that would give more discretion to universities in their handling of sex assault cases and aim to provide a fair hearing for accused students.

“The Safe Campus Act needs to die,” said Steven Healy, a national expert on campus safety and co-founder of Margolis Healy, a campus safety consulting firm.

The proposed legislation, currently being weighed by the House of Representatives education committee, has sown controversy among victim advocate groups and some college administrators, who have criticized a requirement for universities to report sexual assaults to campus police within 48 hours unless the accuser says in writing that he or she doesn’t want to pursue law enforcement action.

Other groups, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, have praised the bill for including “common-sense” due process safeguards, such as requiring institutions to give accused students two weeks’ written notice of the charges they face.

Panelists also weighed the growing impact of anonymous apps like Yik Yak on campus safety. Yik Yak threats and bullying have sparked a tug-of-war over free speech and campus safety on several campuses across the country.

“The ability to assess social media threats is the next wave (of campus safety procedures),” Healy said. “If the conversations are happening out there, we need to be listening.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Tara Jeffries at (202) 974-6317 or by email.