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Clarifying the Clery Act

Written September 12th, 2020

This month marks one year since a UNC-Chapel Hill student was violently raped with a knife to her throat, then robbed in the parking deck of Shortbread Lofts on Rosemary Street. The apartment complex is only a block away from Franklin Street and a half-mile from UNC's campus.

The attack is in the papers. It’s in the Chapel Hill Police report; but a year later, it is still not in the annual security log that UNC puts together to give students and employees an accurate picture of the threats to their safety.

Thirty years after the passage of the landmark Clery Act, it has become a bureaucratic mess that can do little to improve students’ wellbeing. It might seem like a simple paperwork issue, but it represents something much bigger. Due to UNC’s ongoing failure to adequately deal with sexual assault and harassment on campus, one in three female undergraduate students has been a victim of sexual assault during their time in college ­according to a campus climate survey released by the university in October 2019.

The Clery Act requires that colleges receiving federal funding disseminate a public annual security report to employees and students every October regarding crime reporting, campus security, and interpersonal violence; however, the Clery Act only requires universities to include crime that occurs and is reported on their property –– leaving out fraternity court, sorority living, off-campus housing, and all points in between.

What happened last September is exactly why the Clery Act should expand its coverage beyond campus limits. These gaps inherently prevent an accurate reporting of the crime that affects college students, especially in small college towns. According to the Census Bureau’s Official Residence Criteria for the 2020 Census, college students will be counted at their “usual residence” or wherever they live and sleep “most of the time.” With a 2020 population of 59,606 and a university enrollment of just over 30,000 students, Chapel Hill is more students than town. If the Clery Act truly seeks to provide transparency around campus crime policy and statistics, it must expand its coverage beyond campus property.

During a global pandemic, the threat of COVID-19 on campuses emphasizes the importance of transparency, as well as informing students and parents when a dangerous situation occurs on campus and what the institution is doing about it. That was the Clery Act’s intent when it was passed by Congress in 1990 –– to ensure that students were promptly notified in an emergency and that annual crime statistics were accurately reported. But like many well-intentioned federal laws, the implementation of the Clery Act has become disconnected from its original design: the security of our college campuses.

UNC was presumably relieved that the September assault didn’t happen on university property; yet, even if the attack did happen a half-mile southeast, it may not have been included in their annual security report.

In August 2019, the U.S. Department of Education concluded a six-year investigation on UNC-Chapel Hill for failing to meet Clery Act requirements, and this past June the investigation resulted in a $1.5 million fine by the DOE. The university seemingly got off easy, with DOE’s report showing that UNC-Chapel Hill failed to properly respond, discipline and prevent sexual assault incidents, as well as report campus crimes. The department began a program review of UNC in 2013 after five women filed a complaint alleging the university mishandled a sexual assault case and mistreated sexual assault victims. But this isn’t anything new for the university.

The Hunting Ground” was a 2015 documentary that shed light on how UNC-Chapel Hill and universities across the nation handled specific sexual assault cases while underscoring the broader difficulties in enforcing Title IX regulations. The film examined how many universities, including UNC, inappropriately and inadequately reported sexual assault crimes to avoid public records showing the extent of the problem at each university.

Five years later, not much has changed. In 2019, UNC-Chapel Hill disclosed 35 incidents of sexual assault on campus, but data collected by Chapel Hill Police in the same year documented 34 reports. This means that the threat of sexual violence in the Chapel Hill community, possibly affecting students, is nearly double what is covered in the Clery Act’s report.

Last year’s violent rape of a UNC student is a brutal reminder that the Clery Act is not comprehensive enough. With many areas of campus that are not contiguous and only first-year students required to live in on-campus housing, crime inevitably affects students beyond and between campus limits. This disguises the Clery Act’s report as exhaustive and skews data intended to offer clarity.

Despite its distortion, the Clery Act has the potential to make a positive impact on student safety...but only if it expands its reach to include everywhere that crime impacts students.

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