The U.S. Education Department, apparently ramping up its scrutiny of colleges' compliance with federal laws on crime reporting, has found violations at three universities, which could be subject to fines or limits on their eligibility for federal financial aid.
Two years ago, the department’s Federal Student Aid office began examining campus security reports from the 2007 academic year for the Universities of Northern Iowa  and Vermont  and for Washington State University , as part of a partnership with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The partnership's goal is to better monitor colleges' compliance with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, which requires them to track crime statistics and disclose the data and information about security procedures to students and employees. The universities were alerted to the department’s final review determinations in March and April, but it appears that the findings were made public only recently.
The universities were “selected as a sample of institutions with sworn police departments,” according to the reviews. When contacted for elaboration Monday afternoon, a spokeswoman said she did not know how the institutions were chosen, who else is being reviewed, or when the findings were posted online.
The cases have been handed over to the Education Department’s Administrative Actions and Appeals Division, which will issue any applicable penalties. While the reviews indicate that the universities have addressed the problems to the department’s satisfaction, the institutions still could be penalized for the infractions. The spokeswoman, Jane Glickman, said that she did not know how likely the institutions are to be penalized, but that the department can impose a maximum fine of $27,500 per infraction.
S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy at Security on Campus , said in an e-mail that to his knowledge, these are the first three institutions in the 32-institution sample to face potential penalties. He said the reviews demonstrate a “major shift” in the department’s enforcement approach to the Clery Act.
“Previously, most Clery cases reviewed by the department were brought about as a result of a particular incident -- such as a homicide and/or high-profile sexual assault case -- that yielded a specific complaint,” Carter said, pointing to a recent case  that resulted in $55,000 in fines. “Virginia Tech’s two investigations, for example, involved the April 16, 2007 mass shooting and a sexual assault case from the 1990s that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Absent a case such as this, most institutions didn’t face scrutiny for the more common, even routine types of violations identified in the UVM and UNI cases.”
The Vermont and Northern Iowa violations involved inaccurate reporting of campus crime statistics, insufficient information regarding timely warning in safety crises, insufficient sexual assault policies, and failure to distribute campus safety reports, including crime statistics, in accordance with federal regulations. Vermont was also found to have crime log deficiencies. Washington State, meanwhile, failed to properly disclose forcible sex crime statistics and accurately classify offenses, and failed to include required statements in its annual security report.
The violations identified at the sample universities are far from unique to those institutions, Carter said. “Both reviews also revealed issues we commonly see at institutions which have relatively easy solutions.” One “especially common issue” is colleges' submitting data to the Education Department that differ from the statistics they report on campus, he said. (Vermont and Northern Iowa were both faulted for this.)
All three universities have responded to the department’s findings by explaining their noncompliance and making changes in reporting, policy and training that the department deems “satisfactory," the reviews say. Generally, the issues resulted from human error or inexperienced personnel.
Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said the reports “do not seem to reflect any major failure to comply with the mandates of the Clery Act, but ... appear to be inadvertent mischaracterizations or failure to report certain events.” For instance, Northern Iowa was faulted for failing to distribute its crime statistics and safety information according to federal regulations; while the university e-mails the information to students, faculty and staff, it did not notify them about how they can find it online, as legislation mandates. “The detail, and the number of people involved on a campus in making sure that the detailed reporting is carried out, can cause some slippage from time to time.”
But, Meloy said, colleges should not disregard the findings. “The detail that’s reflected in these recent determination letters shows that institutions do need to be very careful in following the mandates of Clery crime reporting,” she said.
In another finding, Northern Iowa reported 491 liquor law violations in its institutional records, but only 40 to the department. This oversight occurred because the university had recorded such incidents in segments -- for instance, violations in dorms versus other parts of campus -- and it omitted some from the report to the department. “That basically was a calculation error,” said David Zarifis, director of public safety at Northern Iowa. “I think we’re in complete compliance right now.”
Carter said such mistakes occur frequently for a number of reasons, one “ironically” being that the Education Department works with institutions to get the data right in the federal database, but the on-campus report often remains unchanged until an audit like this one takes place. Or, as was the case at Vermont, many institutions have adopted their own, non-standard reporting categories that are omitted in government reporting because they don’t fit into any category.
Gary Derr, vice president for executive operations at Vermont, said he hopes the university’s “immediate corrective action” that addressed all five points of the review will be “more than sufficient” to avoid a federal penalty. Likewise, a Washington State spokesman, Darin Watkins, said his institution had already been addressing some reporting issues before the audit. “It was more important for us to do the right thing as much as it was to do the changes necessary to satisfy the requirements of the Clery Act,” he said.
This year, the Education Department has been cracking down  on sexual assault policies and procedures, which are also covered by the Clery Act. Meloy said it’s hard to draw a connection between that effort and these reports. “On the other hand, it does appear that the Department of Education is focusing particular attention on sexual assault reporting and related matters,” she said. “I don’t know that the department has previously focused quite this broadly on the particulars of Clery reporting.”