Common mistakes to avoid when trying to report campus crimes (essay)

It has been a year since the U.S. Department of Education updated, via the new Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting, its guidance about the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (often referred to as just the Clery Act). But many campus officials charged with reporting campus crimes remain unclear about how to comply with the changes. And each inaccuracy or omission can cost an institution tens of thousands of dollars in fines and create the appearance that campus safety is not a priority -- consequences that can shake student confidence and hinder recruiting.

Since it was enacted in 1990, the Clery Act has been amended four times, as well as revised to take into account the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. Such changes repeatedly broadened the law’s scope, expanding institutions’ requirements to disclose statistics, create policies and offer programming related to sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking.

And today, while the Trump Administration may be easing off the gas pedal when it comes to regulatory enforcement overall, there is no indication of a slowdown when it comes to Clery Act compliance. On April 20, the Education Department announced that fines for Clery violations would increase to $54,789 per violation -- more than double the original $25,000 fine -- under federal inflationary adjustment rules. Legislators, too, encouraged by public advocates, have continued the push for more campus security enhancements in both the U.S. House and Senate, as well as in state legislatures.

A substantial number of colleges and universities have received notices of Clery audits, noncompliance and associated fines in recent years. The most common triggers have been: 1) federal student aid program reviews, 2) complaints made to Education Department or 3) inconsistencies in institutional crime reports required by the federal government.

In fact, each year on October 1, all institutions participating in federal student aid programs must submit an Annual Security Report detailing what they have done and are doing to protect students and employees from violence on campus. These reports can be extensive and include information about how the institutions collect, classify and report certain crimes, investigate and process complaints and reports, and notify students and employees of emergencies.

Common Compliance Mistakes

Unfortunately, the path to creating a perfect Annual Security Report is laden with obstacles. Colleges and universities often falter despite having collected the requisite information. But by reviewing some of the most common Clery pitfalls, institutional leaders can strengthen compliance and avoid potentially massive fines while also better serving and protecting their students and institutions. Some common mistakes include:

  • failing to include gender identity and national origin, as defined by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act. You also need to include statistics about VAWA-defined hate crimes in your reports, along with the other VAWA offenses (sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking);
  • making general statements about how the disciplinary process worked in cases of VAWA crimes. The new guidelines require that institutions list each disciplinary proceeding used to resolve a complaint in cases involving such crimes;
  • not reporting all of the possible sanctions following a disciplinary proceeding;
  • reporting thefts as burglaries. Under the new guidelines, burglary requires unlawful entry within a structure. For example, a backpack in a student lounge would not count as burglary;
  • misreporting drug offenses. You should not count as an offense possession of a small amount of marijuana in states that have decriminalized it. In addition, don’t count a person’s misuse of a legally-obtained prescription drug;
  • including incidences in the “referral for disciplinary action” statistics that were violations of institutional policy but not violations of the law;
  • using your Annual Security Report in place of a statement of victims’ rights and options. The revised Handbook has made it abundantly clear that providing a copy of the report alone is not enough to fulfill VAWA’s requirement to give victims written information about their rights and options. You must provide a document that walks victims through the process. Giving such written information to respondents clarifies procedures, ensures a reference point for future questions, and demonstrates fair treatment of both parties before the investigation and determination of a complaint; and
  • transplanting your Title IX sexual misconduct policy into the report. Your Title IX policy is unlikely to fulfill the requirements spelled out in the Handbook for ASR policy statements concerning VAWA obligations. These required statements relate to sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking, and they address your institution’s response -- typically managed by your Title IX office -- to complaints of such activity. As a result, it’s a good practice to have your Title IX coordinator review the VAWA-related areas of your Annual Security Report.

Geographic classifications

Institutions can also frequently make mistakes concerning geographic issues related to crimes. Those potential mistakes include:

  • failing to disclose statistics for reported Clery Act crimes that occur on non-campus buildings or property that your institution owns or controls. You must also include crimes that occur on public property within or immediately adjacent to the campus;
  • failing to include crimes that are reported on property controlled by entities affiliated with your institution. According to the Handbook, any property owned or controlled by an institution-associated foundation, holding company, subsidiary, alumni association, booster club or other institution-affiliated entity is considered to be controlled by your college or university where that property is operated in support of, or in relation to, the institution’s educational purposes. Institution-associated hospitals and/or medical centers controlled by your institution and reasonably contiguous to campus are deemed part of your campus, as well;
  • failing to show how each of your institution’s campuses complies independently. Under this revised guidance, many buildings previously reported as non-campus property (including some ongoing study abroad sites) now qualify as separate campuses that must meet all of the requirements of the Clery Act. The new Handbook cleared up questions about separate campuses. To be considered a separate campus, a site must: 1) be owned or controlled by the institution, 2) not be reasonably contiguous to the main campus, 3) offer an organized program of study, and 4) offer courses in educational programs leading to a degree, certificate or other recognized credential; and have at least one administrative person on site at least part time; and
  • failing to collect crime statistics on some non-campus properties. The new Handbook expanded the definition of non-campus property, such that it may now include locations used for repeated institution-sponsored trips. For example, if a university debate team stays at the same hotel year after year for a competition, rooms in the hotel plus the common and access areas are now considered non-campus property, and you must to collect crime statistics for those areas.

The Hierarchy Rule

When counting multiple crimes for purposes of Clery crime reporting, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Hierarchy Rule applies. Under that rule, when more than one criminal offense has been committed during a single incident, you only count the most serious offense. With the new Handbook, the Hierarchy Rule now only applies to the category of criminal offenses or primary crimes and no longer extends to arrests and disciplinary referrals, which are reported separately. Common mistakes when applying the Hierarchy Rule include:

  • not counting arson. Regardless of the offenses, if arson is involved, it must be included;
  • not including sexual assault when it occurs with a murder. You need to count both; and
  • counting fondling in incidents that include other sexual assault offenses. Only use the fondling designation if it is the sole sexual assault offense reported.

Fire logs, policies, and reports

Along with preparing an Annual Security Report, institutions with on-campus student housing must disclose fire safety information related to facilities. Common mistakes include:

  • not keeping a fire log that is open to public inspection;
  • not publishing an annual fire-safety report containing policy statements as well as fire statistics associated with each on-campus student housing facility, including the number of fires, cause of fires, injuries, deaths and property damage;
  • only stating that fire drills took place, rather than listing the exact number of drills that occurred in the year;
  • not specifying if any planned improvements are planned for fire safety systems. If no improvements are planned, state that instead;
  • not including the institution’s policies on portable appliances, smoking and open flames; and
  • not informing prospective students and employees about the availability of the report.

Going the extra mile

This is a sampling of the many areas the new Clery Handbook addresses. The Handbook contains a useful checklist of Annual Security Report elements, but Clery compliance calls for more than checking off boxes. Your report must provide several levels of detail for each required statement of policy, procedure and programming. A deep understanding of the Handbook, regulations and related developing guidance can lead to a compliant report, strengthened institutional systems and a safer community for your institution.

Hayley E. Hanson, practice group leader, and Anne D. Cartwright are lawyers in Husch Blackwell LLP’s Education practice. Based in the firm’s Kansas City, Mo. office, they frequently assist colleges and universities with compliance and litigation matters.

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Advice for dealing with stalking in academe (essay)

While stalking of faculty members by students is more common than many people realize, campus support -- even when it exists -- may be difficult to find, writes Anna Sher.

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Amid Rumors, Cheerleading Team Suspended

The cheerleading team at Coastal Carolina University was suspended indefinitely last week, leading to many questions and rumors but little clarity, The Sun News reported.

A spokesman for the university confirmed that the team is being investigated, but he would not go into details.

A local TV station, WMBF News, spoke with an unnamed cheerleader who said the university president received an anonymous letter about the team’s activities. Those allegations included prostitution, buying alcohol for minors on the team and paying people to complete class assignments for them.

After those allegations began to circulate last Thursday, the cheerleading team sent out a statement about “false accusations.”

“At this point in time, we no longer wish to be contacted about the current situation. The false accusations have led to harassment on campus as well as through social media and are beginning to negatively impact our daily lives as well as our studies,” the statement, which was intended to represent the entire 20-person cheerleading team, said. “As a team we ask the community to support us through these tough times, as we hope the situation will be cleared up shortly.”

The team’s website has been changed to redirect to the general university spirit page, and the cheerleaders will no longer be performing in a national competition later this month.

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2 Prairie View A&M Students Killed in a Week

Two students at Prairie View A&M University have been shot and killed in the last week in what appear to be unrelated incidents, ABC13 reported.

Three people were shot and one killed at a party about a block outside campus early Saturday. Police estimated as many as 20 rounds were fired. As of Sunday, no one had been arrested and the number of gunmen remained unclear.

Chris Chappell, 20, died in the shooting. The news of his death came just hours after students learned that another of their classmates had been found dead after being reported missing Wednesday.

The body of Tristan Houston, also 20 years old, was found in a wooded area Friday, two days after police were alerted to his disappearance.

A 19-year-old Prairie View student, Ayinde Williams, has been charged with Houston’s murder, KHOU-TV reported. Williams’s bond is set for $150,000, and a motive for the murder has not been released.

The student body president, Jacolahn Dudley, released a statement about the two shooting deaths.

“I want you all to know that your safety is a major concern of mine, and I never want anyone to feel as if they are unsafe while pursuing their academic education here at Prairie View A&M University,” Dudley said.

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3 Florida Students Charged With Prostitution

Three college students in Florida were arrested on prostitution charges last week after negotiating a deal with an undercover police detective in Coral Gables, NBC6 Miami reported.

The students are 19, 21 and 23 years old and attend the University of Miami and Florida International University.

One of the students worked out a deal with the undercover detective -- $5,000 for sex with each of the other two students, with an extra charge for unprotected sex.

All three students were charged with either engaging in prostitution or aiding and abetting prostitution, among several drug-related charges as well.

Each student has been released from jail since the arrests.

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Smaller institutions report increase in personalized phishing attempts


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The limitations of emergency text-messaging systems during a crisis (essay)

At 9:56 a.m. Monday, Nov. 28, Ohio State University students and employees received an active shooter alert, but there were two key pieces of information they did not know.

One: as students rushed in total panic to build walls of chairs and desks in front of classroom doors, they did not know the alert was inaccurate. Contrary to the words in the warning, no active shooter was on the campus. He had a knife.

Two: perhaps even more important, they had no idea the campus assailant they’d just been warned about had already died several minutes before they received the first vague danger warning at 9:54 a.m. and the second one about an active shooter at 9:56 a.m. He was shot dead by a university police officer at 9:53 a.m., about a minute after he started his attack. The danger was over when people received both of those Buckeye Alerts.

The attack at Ohio State University is a reminder that although colleges and universities have spent tens of millions of dollars during the past decade to put in place complex emergency communications systems, the technology has serious limitations. Because of the way most such attacks develop, communications will always be too slow and, at least initially, not very accurate.

Pennsylvania State University put in place one of the early text communications systems in higher education in 2006, the year before the attack at Virginia Tech. Back then it was simply another news delivery system to add to the many other advances we were making in digital communications.

I have watched as the technology has expanded, improved and been deployed to thousands of colleges and universities, hospitals, and other institutions around the nation.

Higher education systems should have such systems in place, and we should practice using them, but we need to lower our expectations for their impact. I am not aware of any such system saving lives in an active campus attack.

It is also worth remembering that although there have been some high-profile shootings on college campuses, the overall rate of campus homicides is a fraction of the rate found across the country in general. Statistically our students are far safer on the school side of College Avenue than they are on the town side.

In addition to aggressive improvements in communications, campus police around the nation have stepped up training, purchased new equipment, added officers and changed tactics. But in light of those improvements and the enormous sums being spent on new technology, it is important that students, employees and parents not be lulled into thinking technology will help keep them safe.

Imagine receiving a text message that essentially warns “Hurry up! It’s time to panic!”

And very little else. There are no details. No information on what is happening or where it is happening. No detailed description of the bad guys and what they are doing. And no specific advice on how to stay safe and alive other than an often vague message like “Shelter in place!”

The key is being fast. And not at all surprising in an emergency like the one at Ohio State, accuracy and context often come later.

Unless that smartphone sitting in your pocket happens to deflect a bullet, I’m not sure mass-alert technology will be a life-saving tool during an active shooter event on campus. Here are some of the reasons they are not perfect solutions.

  • Bad guys have phones, too. What if the bad guys are subscribers to your alert system and social media postings? That’s pretty likely if they are a student or work for the institution. Every message to the public can also alert them to what the college believes is going on. If you alert students to shootings on the west side of campus and tell them to move to the east side of campus, the bad guys can see that. If you tell students to shelter in place and turn out the lights, the bad guys can read that, too.
  • Shootings take seconds; phone calls take minutes. When a 911 call is made, this happens: a dispatcher takes down the pertinent information and starts to think about it. Maybe they ask some questions. Then they share it with police to respond to the call for assistance. Then the dispatcher or someone working with them types up, or selects from a predetermined group of messages, a note to send out by text messaging and social media to perhaps tens of thousands of subscribers. While this several-minutes-long, well-thought-out and practiced official process takes place, another unofficial one is already well underway. A hundred students in the area of the shooting have already sent 100 different and probably contradictory text messages to their friends, posted to Facebook, tweeted about the event and put it on Snapchat. And more than a few are in the process of putting themselves in danger to get photos and videos of the assailant and the attack in progress. It’s time for them to be a social media star, to go viral and generate some clicks.
  • Not enough subscribers. At some institutions, only a fraction of the student body and faculty and staff are signed up for the official text alerts. You can’t read what you don’t see.
  • Too many subscribers. Other colleges have the opposite problem -- thousands of family members, news media and the general public are signed up. That can slow the process of pushing out the message quickly to the people who need it most and first.
  • Lack of facts. Messages, especially initially, are often vague and perhaps even misleading. Police simply don’t have much detail. Consider the giant, terrifying stampede at JFK airport this year when someone thought they heard a gunshot. Thousands of people fled, throwing the terminal into chaos for hours. Those reports were wrong. Trying to follow the letter of the law as best they can, some institutions send out multiple alerts every week, and most of them are related to sexual assaults. Those messages are often vague and tied to when the assault was reported, not to when it occurred. It is not unusual for a victim to struggle with the issue of whether to report an assault for several days or even weeks before going to campus police. If the assault happened four days ago, should an emergency text alert be sent to 50,000 people the hour it is finally reported? In many cases it is. Subscribers become cynical when they read the words “Emergency Alert” and then receive old news.
  • System overload. When an earthquake centered in Virginia rumbled across the eastern United States around 2 p.m. on Aug. 23, 2011, Penn State was one of many institutions to immediately tap its text alert system. A couple things went wrong. Because scores of text alert systems on the East Coast all jumped into action at once, and the general public also rushed to the cellular system to talk and text with each other, the system ground to a slow crawl. A small group of Penn State officials sitting in a room together mapping out our response received the text alert we had ordered sent to students and employees over a 30-minute window. That’s a big difference in an unfolding emergency. And, of course, we could not assure any of our text alert subscribers that there would not be another aftershock five minutes later. We really had little useful information to share with them.
  • Slow delivery. One company brags that it “sets the standard for rapid, reliable message delivery.” It says it can deliver messages at a rate of 10,000 a minute. But what if your large state university has 70,000 subscribers? Is it OK for the message to take seven minutes to reach thousands of phones? Many people can be shot and killed in seven minutes. And in the best-case scenario, a couple minutes will elapse between that first gunshot, the call to 911 and then somebody pushing the send button for an emergency text.
  • The news media. In the middle of a crisis, what is the last thing you need? Yep, a dozen TV news vans and reporters live tweeting and transmitting video from the scene with a lot of frightened bystanders who have no factual information but are ready to speculate for Action News. When we had a sniper on Penn State’s campus shooting at students, the first rushed report from a major newswire service said two people were killed. It was actually one. And this was a professional communicator getting facts wrong. Our communications team lost time the rest of the morning trying to correct that information.
  • False positives. Panicked callers dial 911 or university safety offices because they “saw something.” A man with a gun? It’s legal in most states and increasingly on college campuses. Someone “Middle Eastern-looking spoke Arabic into a cell phone”? Give me a break. The admissions office is spending a lot of money trying to get Middle Eastern students enrolled at your university. And yes, they have cell phones, like every other person in the country above the age of 10. And they absolutely speak another language. Alert systems are put into action and the equivalent of campus SWAT teams respond to these false calls. The public also sends the messages virally on social media before the truth catches up with reality.
  • Turn off those phones! One rule many faculty members include in their syllabi and repeat all semester in the classroom is that students should put their cell phones away until class is over. Officials make the same announcements before guest speakers start talking and concerts begin. As I said earlier, you can’t read what you can’t see.
  • Too much information. One of the weakest links in most systems is how to sort through hundreds of simultaneous calls and social media postings and get police officers to the scene of an active shooter in the first seconds of a developing massacre.
  • Used for the wrong purpose. We once had the head of one of our campuses send out a text alert to tell everyone he was missing his keys. No, really.

Even with all those problems, and others, I still think we need robust text alert and social media systems in place on college campuses. But it is important we dial down the expectations for such systems and understand their serious limitations. The real key in limiting a mass shooting on your campus is going to be your police department -- their training, size and equipment. At Ohio State, an officer was on the scene of the attack and quickly ended it.

Until something better comes along, I will continue to start the first day of class the way I always do -- once we go through the syllabus and everyone in class has introduced themselves, I talk to my students for a couple minutes about their safety. I tell them where the two closest exits from the building are located and how to try to barricade the half glass door to the classroom -- the one that opens outward and has no lock -- to buy themselves a couple extra seconds until the police arrive. And to keep that cell phone in their pocket over their heart. It may do more good there.

Bill Mahon is a former vice president of university relations at Penn State, where he now teaches strategic communications in the College of Communications. He is a partner of University RepProtect, a suite of readiness services offered by public relations firm Ketchum.

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Ohio State University following Nov. 28 attack on the campus
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Southern California professor stabbed to death by student

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