Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Penn State scandal reminder of Clery Act issues nationwide

Let's hope there aren't many college football programs where the coaches are serial child molesters.  

But at least one facet of the mess at Penn State is also a problem at colleges across the country: Failure by higher ed institutions to follow federal law in reporting sexual assaults and other crimes on or near their campuses. 

There's a law on the books called the Clery Act that requires that colleges and universities report to the U.S. Department of Education annually about serious crimes, whether they involve students or not. The statistics are public records, and are required to be published in an annual report. 

Penn State didn't get the message. According to the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, PSU's vaunted football program "opted out" of complying with the Clery Act. The person in charge of making sure the university complied with the law? A sergeant in the campus police department "who was able to devote only minimal time to Clery Act compliance."

One sergeant. We're not talking about Backwoods Junior College here. We're talking about a public research university with 45,000 students on its main campus alone. 

The university's policy on dealing with the Clery Act was still just a draft when the university leadership melted down last fall, and the ousted university president, Graham Spanier, told Freeh's team he wasn't aware Penn State didn't have a policy and wasn't meeting the law. 

But Penn State isn't the only one. 

Three years ago, I was honored to be a minor contributor to a series of stories the Center for Public Integrity and NPR published on sexual assaults on college campuses. A major finding of that series was that the federal Department of Education "has failed to aggressively monitor and regulate campus response to sexual assault," as NPR put it.

Simply put, schools aren't bothering to report their stats, and they're getting away with it. 

Six years ago, student journalists at Texas' Tarleton State University asked their college for copies of all of its on-campus crime reports. Under the leadership of journalism teacher Dan Malone, who won a Pulitzer at the Dallas Morning News, and working through a student outreach program of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas (for which I'm proud to be a board member), the students found that Tarleton had underreported crimes on campus to the federal government, a violation of the Clery Act

For its lack of veracity, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently upheld $110,000 in fines against Tarleton State.

The Clery Act takes its name from Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered in her own dorm room at Lehigh University. Congress passed the law in 1989. 

Twenty years down the road, colleges and universities like Penn State still aren't taking it seriously. The victims pay the price for the schools' silence. 

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