One year after, Clery complaint investigation launched

by Jessica Avitabile | 8/4/14 7:31pm

As federal investigation into the College’s compliance with the Clery Act is set to start on Aug. 18, College officials who work on the Clery Act believe that the College is in compliance, associate general council Kevin O’Leary said.

More than 30 students and alumni have signed onto the complaint, filed in May 2013.

The College will cooperate with investigators, O’Leary said.

“If the result of the investigation finds areas where we have not complied, that will require us to change some of our practices to get into compliance,” he said. “If they find the areas where we have been complying, that will just affirm that we’ve been doing things correctly.”

The Clery Act, signed in 1990, requires higher education institutions to disclose data on campus crime. Violating these regulations or failing to take corrective action can lead to federal sanctions that range in severity from fines to termination of federal financial aid programs.

Annie Clark, who was a co-compainant in a Clery Act filing against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that an investigation can be effective if colleges recognize what they are not doing well. She added, however, that administrators may also choose to ignore the investigation and say that they are doing everything well.

The federal investigation to begin at Dartmouth follows Clery Act compliance investigations at colleges across the country. Low staffing in the Department of Education’s task force can lead to a long time lapse between when a complaint is filed and the beginning of an investigation, Clark said. Currently, the Clery compliance staff has only 13 employees, so they are stretched thin in terms of handling multiple cases, she said.

As awareness increases around the Clery Act and Title IX, more complaints are filed, and the Department of Education does not have enough staff to keep up with the number of cases coming in, 32 National Campus Safety Initiative director Daniel Carter said.

“They really have received more work than they can handle as quickly as they would like,” he said. “That’s currently a very significant issue.”

Anna Winham ’14, an original complainant, said that if the Title IX investigation had not started shortly after the complaint, she would have been more disappointed by the long time lapse.

Clark highlighted the example of the University of California at Berkeley, where nine months elapsed between a complaint filing and a federal response. During the interim, students on campus needed to protest and draw attention to the situation in order to have their needs met, she said.

“Students can shine light on the administration if they are not doing their job,” she said.

The Department of Education has recently revamped parts of the Clery Act review process, Carter said. Recent changes include adding gender identity and national origin to the definition of hate crimes and strengthening victim confidentiality protections.

Carter said that regardless of violations indicated in an original complaint, investigators typically review every aspect of compliance.

Six months can pass before a complaint is evaluated and investigators decide whether or not to open a case, he said. Then the investigation itself can take more than 18 months to be completed.

There is typically a negotiation process with an institution’s administration after the investigation if violations are found and a final program review letter recommends what to fine an institution. The total process can take more than four to five years, Carter said, which makes it almost certain that most of the students on campus when a complaint is filed will have graduated by the time the process is resolved.

A case that can take longer than a student’s enrollment “just isn’t fair to anybody,” Carter said.

Dartmouth Change member Alexandra Arnold ’10 said that the intersectionality of the Clery Act allows investigators to look at multiple issues together. The majority of the attention has been on sexual violence, she said, but Clery violations also include misreporting of bullying, hazing, racism and homophobia.

In addition to protesting to have their colleges and universities investigated, Clark said that, until recently, the burden fell on the students to announce the investigation.

“It will take continual pressure to make sure any changes made initially continue to be enforced,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s left up to the students because there’s not a ton of oversight. Having an investigation does create change, but making sure it’s lasting and sustainable is key.”

The investigation follows the announcement last week of proposed legislation from eight Democratic and Republican senators that would increase the penalties prescribed by the Clery Act. Called the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, the bill would increase the fine for a Clery Act violation from $35,000 to $150,000 and would mandate that schools publish an anonymous survey where students report their experiences with sexual violence on campus. Colleges would also be required to hire a confidential advocate to work with survivors of sexual assault.

The bill would also increase resources for Clery Act reviews, Carter said.

“I hope that Congress will take action so that the Clery Act and Title IX investigations can be resolved more promptly in the future,” he said.

Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law, said that an investigation is not an automatic presumption of guilt, but due to the high-profile nature of an investigation into an Ivy League institution, the investigation will be covered in the national media, and that attention on the case will linger.

“We shouldn’t jump to judgement,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to show what has been done.”

At the same time, Lake said, Dartmouth can take advantage of this opportunity to make change.

The College reported 24 counts of forcible sex offenses in 2012, 11 of which occurred on campus property, according to the 2013 annual security and fire safety report. The 2014 Clery disclosure will be released Oct. 1.

Laura Weiss contributed reporting.