Daily Collegian, Meet The Clery Act

Yesterday, The Daily Collegian published a 292-word editorial on Penn State’s Timely Warning notifications. We’re all familiar with these — the PSU Alert text saying another sexual assault has happened on campus; they show up on our phones seemingly every few days. The editorial noted the lack of a Timely Warning for one of two sexual assaults reported this week, demanded transparency, and questioned “what right” the university and police have to determine what is and what is not considered a threat to campus safety. While campuses should (and can) always be doing more to prevent crime and educate students about sexual misconduct on campus, the editorial demonstrated an overall lack of understanding of campus crime laws.

Daily Collegian Editorial Board, allow me to introduce you to the Clery Act.

According to the Clery Center, “the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (20 USC § 1092(f)) is the landmark federal law that requires colleges and universities across the United States to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses.” The federal law, named in memory of Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered in her residence hall during the 1986 school year, has been in effect since 1991.

The Clery Act includes a number of requirements that universities must follow in order to be eligible for participation in federal student financial aid programs. Among them are requirements for:

  • The publication and distribution of an Annual Campus Security Report
  • The maintenance of a public crime log
  • The disclosure of crime statistics in campus, public, campus-adjacent, and non-campus, but related areas (such as Greek housing)
  • The issuance of Timely Warnings about Clery Act crimes that pose an ongoing or serious threat to the campus community

Let’s talk specifically about those Timely Warnings.

According to the 2014 Penn State Annual Security Report, “The purpose of these Timely Warnings is notify the campus community of the incident and to provide information that may enable the community to take steps to protect themselves from similar incidents. The University will issue Timely Warnings whenever the following criteria are met: (1) a crime is committed; (2) the perpetrator has not been apprehended; and (3) there is a substantial risk to the physical safety of other members of the campus community because of this crime.” Penn State’s policy is even stricter than that of the US Department of Education’s Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting, which puts it even more simply: Universities must issue a Timely Warning “whenever there is a threat that a crime is ongoing or may be repeated.”

The Penn State Annual Security Report goes on to say that Timely Warnings tend to be issued for Clery Act crimes reported to campus authorities (sexual assaults, arson, criminal homicide, robbery, burglary, hate crimes, etc.), crimes that the university considers to pose a continued threat to the community (a serial rapist), and crimes that are present within a pattern (a string of thefts from a particular residence hall). For off-campus crimes, the university can issue a Timely Warning if the crime occurred in a space used and frequented by members of the university community, such as fraternities or off-campus, university-owned buildings.

In other words: The purpose of a Timely Warning is to let the community know there is a continued threat on campus, with a perpetrator at large, so that community members can take steps to prevent another crime.

As such, the lack of a Timely Warning is not a judgment about the merit of a report of a crime, or its severity. Rather, the police determine whether or not a Timely Warning is warranted on the basis of the standards set forth by federal law and campus regulations. It is not that the omission of a Timely Warning “make[s] this sexual assault different or less ‘timely’ than the rest,” it is simply a matter of a threat being present or not. This explains why Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said there was no warning issued: because both the person assaulted and the perpetrator came to Penn State Police together. Timely Warnings are sent out only for crimes that are considered to provide a continued threat to the community, and if the perpetrator has not been apprehended. If the perpetrator went to Penn State Police with the victim, apprehension has been achieved.

So, to answer your question about “what right” Penn State has to determine what is a threat: Federal law says the university has every right to determine what the institution itself may consider a threat to campus community safety. If students are interested in learning about all crimes reported, they can rely on the Clery requirement of a public campus crime log — Penn State’s can be found here. Alternatively, students can read through the Annual Campus Security Report that all Clery-compliant universities are required to publish on October 1 of each year to provide the past three years’ crime statistics, educate the public on campus security and safety measures, crime prevention programs, and procedures. If students are interested in learning more about the Clery Act, you can visit the Clery Center website.

As always, survivors of sexual assault are encouraged to seek out the campus and community resources they need for a healthy recovery, which can be found here. Information about reporting sexual misconduct can be found here.

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About the Author

Melissa McCleery

Melissa is a senior majoring in Women’s Studies, Political Science, and Spanish. In the little free time she has, Melissa likes to cook, spend all her money at The Phyrst, and add to her collection of blue and white striped clothing. She can be reached via Twitter (@mkmccleery) or email ([email protected]).

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