Education Department eases colleges’ rules on reporting crimes

An Education Department agency has eased requirements for colleges to report crimes that occur on or near their campuses, ending some Obama-era strictures.

The Office of Postsecondary Education said that a lengthy handbook that guides compliance under the Clery Act overburdened schools with costly paperwork. The office has downsized the 265-page handbook to a 13-page document.

“[The requirements] can be challenging for some institutions of higher education to understand and satisfy,” the office said Friday in a news release.

Agency officials revised the handbook in 2011 and 2016, but the Education Department says the latest revision contains “significant changes” for reporting crimes ranging from attempted sexual assault to gun and drug violations.

Under an Obama-era guidance, colleges have been required to report to the Education Department all criminal activity occurring within a mile of campus. Instead, schools will report off-campus crimes within an area that is “reasonably contiguous” to a campus. Colleges also will determine for themselves whether to include nearby public parks or rivers in their campuses’ general area for reporting purposes.

Schools also will have wider leeway in deciding who constitutes “campus security authorities.” Education officials say the old guidance “took an expansive view” of who should be identified as security personnel, “creating more confusion than clarity.”

None of the changes will be implemented for the current reporting deadline of Dec. 31.

Groups that work with Clery Act compliance say the changes will lessen consistency among colleges, which could mislead students trying to assess and compare campus safety before enrolling.

“It is hard to compare the statistics across the board consistently,” said Abigail Boyer, associate executive director of the Clery Center. “Even though we’ve seen updates, it’s our view that removing the entire document isn’t ideal. There was a lot of useful information for campuses [in the handbook].”

Lynn C. Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, questioned the revisions, saying they are vague and likely lead to as much confusion as the old requirements.

“Yes, they lifted the one-mile geographical guidelines, but then it’s left up to institutions to determine how far they should go,” said Ms. Pasquerella, whose group has called for changes to Clery guidelines. “At a time when campuses are already struggling with what the Clery Act means in terms of COVID-19, this seems even more burdensome.”

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act of 1990 was enacted in response to public outcry over campus safety following the rape and murder of 19-year-old Jeanne Clery in her dormitory at Lehigh University in 1986. The Federal Student Aid website lists 123 universities targeted by Clery Act reports, going back decades and reporting millions of dollars in fines for noncompliance.

This month, Education Department regulators fined Baylor University $461,656 for violations uncovered in an investigation begun in 2017 during a sexual assault scandal that led to the resignation of President Ken Starr. In a statement last week, Baylor blamed, in part, a “lack administrative capability” for failing to maintain an accurate crime log.

In September, the University of California-Berkeley announced it would pay a $2.35 million fine for inaccurately classifying more than 1,200 crimes, mostly substance- and weapons-related.

A 2015 Senate report titled “Recalibrating Regulation of College and Universities” described the handbook as “unnecessarily voluminous” and blamed “heavy-handed and poorly designed regulations,” in part, for sky-rocketing tuition.

“These changes will bring welcome relief from some difficult aspects of Clery Act compliance, such as being required to track crimes at hotels across the country and world where students spend as little as one night during official trips, as well as flexibility that face unique situations with geography or personnel,” S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, wrote in a post on the group’s website.

According to Education Department data, more than 6,000 schools reported 37,573 criminal offenses in 2018.

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