SMU Improves in Alerting Students About Campus Crime
May 4, 2011
By Kassi Schmitt
During the early morning hours of April 5, 1986, Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Clery was tortured, raped, sodomized and murdered in her dormitory. Her killer, another student at the university, entered her room by walking through a series of three propped-open doors.
Jeanne’s parents discovered shortly after that Lehigh University failed to inform its students of almost 40 violent crimes on the campus in the three years before their daughter’s murder. Because of this statistic and the tragic death of their daughter, they fought to raise a greater awareness among students of crime on college campuses.
This incident led to the passage of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statstics Act. The federal law, now more commonly refered to as The Clery Act, took effect in 1990 and requires colleges and universities to disclose timely and annual information about campus crime and security policies.
After a semester-long review of SMU’s compliance with the Clery Act, 15 SMU journalism students found that the campus fell short on only two of 21 Clery Act checkpoints developed for the Light of Day Project. SMU’s compliance has shown major improvement since 2004.
The research was conducted as part of the Light of Day project, a statewide collaboration with other university journalism students, The Texas Tribune and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas who collected and analyzed 2009 crime data on and off campus.
In 2004, when six SMU students were involved in the same project, they found that the school failed to issue crime alerts and adequately inform students of at least four sexual assault and rape cases on the campus over three years.
The Daily Campus reported in 2008 that between the years of 2005 and 2006 there was a 333 percent increase in the amount of women who reported being raped on campus. The article said SMU officials “never told the student body, parents or faculty members that women were reporting an average of one sexual assault a month on campus in 2006.” It wasn’t until the mandatory annual crime report required by The Clery Act came out in 2007 that students were informed of the assaults.
Seven years after the first Light of Day project, SMU has significantly increased its compliance with the Clery Act and has even held seminars on campus to ensure officials understand the importance of the regulations.
Complying with the act involves a lot more than just posting crime statistics online. It requires the development of policy statements, gathering information from campus sources, producing and disseminating extensive reports and issuing timely or emergency notifications.
SMU must comply with all the requirements of the Clery Act including:
This year, students found that officials failed to mention the university’s policy of whistleblowers or anti-retaliation protections that were added to the legislation in 2008.
When informed of this deficiency, SMU police detective Linda Perez said that she was unaware of the additional policy and “will be adding a paragraph to the section of the Annual Security Report, Reporting Crime, to adequately handle this important subject matter.”
Students also discovered that not all timely reports issued by SMU contained a detailed description of the suspect or information that would help protect themselves. Perez said that many times, crimes like sexual assaults that occur on campus are committed by acquaintances. In those cases, they already know who the perpetrator is and who to look for.
This year, the police department began combining the reports from all three SMU campuses. Instead of issuing separate reports for each individual campus in Dallas, Plano and Taos, Perez said a committee advised her to combine them for the “best practice” of The Clery Act.
“We want all the students to be aware and notified of all the crimes on all the campuses,” Perez said.
The Clery Act regulation is enforced and monitored by the U.S. Department of Education. According to the legislation, all public and private institutions of postsecondary education participating in federal student aid programs are required to comply.
“The goal of our safety and security related regulations is to provide students and their families with accurate, complete and timely information about safety on campus,” said Sara Gast, public affairs specialist for the Department of Education. “We want students to be safe.”
Perez said the police department works hard to ensure that SMU students are provided accurate and up-to-date information about crime on campus.
“I think a lot of students come here and think, ‘SMU’s in a nice area. There’s no crime here,’” Perez said. “But there is crime on campus. We live in this area adjacent to the city of Dallas and that’s a pretty high rate of crime all around the area so it’s only common sense that some of that would spill over to the SMU campus.”
Although SMU has never been charged with not complying with the Clery Act, failure to do so can result in fines up to $27,500 by the U.S. Department of Education.
“We have worked to make compliance as easy as possible,” Gast said. “Our goal is for students to be informed and aware of security on their campus, not to fine institutions.”
Detective Perez said above all, her job on campus is to make sure students are safe. And when it comes to reporting crime statistics for the Clery Act, she would rather be safe than sorry.
“I’m not worried so much about the reputation of SMU itself as I am about the safety of the communities,” she said. “I think it’s good information and will help kids to know why we do some of things we do on campus.”
Clarification: The Clery Act’s 2008 “whistleblower protection” provision does not require that schools describe such protections in their annual Clery Act reports, as suggested in the original version of this story. Please see the comments section below for more details.