Change to Clery investigation process helps student journalists get information faster

(Unsplash / Fred Moon)

The Department of Education used to take years to resolve Clery Act complaints against universities. But as of 2019, several schools underwent a new, quicker process, which brought the schools under Clery compliance — giving journalists access to more complete campus crime statistics — in a matter of months.

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Crime Statistics Act, or the Clery Act for short, was signed into law in 1990 and requires that schools participating in federal student aid funding notify the campus when a crime has been reported. Virtually every college and university in the U.S., including private schools, falls under that category. Journalists reporting on campus crimes rely heavily on the daily crime log and an annual campus security report required by the Clery Act.

DOE enforces the Clery Act, so it evaluates the merit of Clery Act complaints and suspected violations. If DOE confirms a violation occurred, it launches a program review, which is a full investigation of Clery Act violations by the school. 

S. Daniel Carter, president of SAFE Campuses, a group that provides safety advice to schools, said the initial evaluation process has become more of a preliminary investigation. DOE looks at the complaint and identifies the violations up front. At the end of this preliminary investigation, it informs the school administration of any confirmed violations. Then, if it determines a program review is warranted, the investigation moves forward. 

DOE changed the process to get universities into compliance faster, which means the public (including journalists) has access to accurate crime information faster. An unintended result is that journalists may also be able to use public records requests to find out more quickly whether a school violated Clery.

“I think the principal benefit to student journalists, obviously, is that when a review like this is done, it ought to result in further transparency under the Clery Act in the preexisting channels: the daily crime log and the annual report,” Carter said. “You’re going to have more schools releasing more information to the public and student journalists when they’re in minimal compliance.”

Rachel Heimann, a reporter for The Sou’wester, the student newspaper at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, filed a Clery complaint against her university in May 2019 because she was aware of crimes that weren’t listed in Rhodes’ annual security report. When she got in touch with Carter, he told her not to expect much because these investigations could take years.

But the DOE confirmed by September 2019 that Rhodes had violated the Clery Act 15 times. Heimann uncovered this through a public records request for email correspondence between DOE and Rhodes. She said she was surprised by how quickly the DOE had moved.

“I feel like this is important for other student journalists to know, because it essentially means that you can find out if the DOE has deemed your school to be non-compliant and even get records through FOIA much earlier than before,” Heimann said in an email.

Carter said the full program review takes anywhere from two to seven years to complete, which transparency groups have criticized.

“With groups like [the Student Press Law Center] and SAFE Campuses, there was a lot of stink about the time it takes to investigate, and it really takes people like Rachel to hold their feet to the fire and not back down,” SPLC’s Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand said.

While the new investigation process is much faster, Carter said it’s nowhere near as thorough as a full program review, which could still take years. If the DOE determines during the initial investigation that the school’s Clery violations warrant a closer look, it will begin a program review. This preliminary assessment also doesn’t result in any fines or sanctions for the school — the sole purpose of it is to make sure the school gets Clery compliant quickly.

Carter said at the end of a program review, DOE produces a publicly accessible report detailing the full findings, but the results of the preliminary assessment are disclosed directly to the school administration.

“It’s not in and of itself meant for public consumption,” Carter said “It is essentially communications between the department and the institution, it gives them the information they need to come into at least minimal compliance. A program review very clearly is a public facing document, it’s considered a formal investigation, and it’s the only one that can result in any punitive action.”

So journalists seeking the results of the preliminary investigation will most likely have to use a public records request like Heimann did.

SPLC reporter Cameren Boatner can be reached by email at or by calling 202-974-6317. Follow her on Twitter @camerenboatner

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