Keeping Schools Safe

BWD Magazine, Spring 2013

Campus security and learning institutions' obligations

Recent events highlight the critical importance of campus and school security - for higher education institutions as well as high schools and elementary schools. Universities and colleges have a dual obligation: to provide a safe and secure learning and living environment, and also to report crime and safety information under the Clery Act and other federal laws.

Failure to comply with the Clery Act can be costly. The U.S. Department of Education recently raised the maximum penalty to $35,000 per violation. To date, the largest penalty imposed under the Clery Act has been $350,000, and that was before the increase. In that case, among other violations, the university was cited for failing to notify the campus community that a student had been murdered in a dormitory room and that the perpetrator was still at large.

What's required

The Clery Act, formerly the Campus Security Act, is part of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Together with other sections of the HEA, the Clery Act requires colleges and universities to:

  • Publish an Annual Security Report (ASR) describing security policies and procedures (including emergency response plans) and providing statistics on the following crimes: criminal homicides, sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, certain burglaries, auto theft and arson
  • Issue "timely warnings" about crimes that pose a serious or ongoing threat to students and employees
  • Develop an emergency response plan to inform the campus community of situations that involve an "immediate threat to the health or safety of students or employees"
  • Establish policies and procedures for handling missing-student reports

An institution's reporting obligations extend to off-campus crimes on property owned or controlled by the institution or public property "within the same reasonably contiguous geographic area of the institution."

Navigating the gray areas

One of the biggest compliance challenges is dealing with the law’s "gray areas." For example, does a particular incident constitute disorderly conduct, which isn't included in campus crime statistics, or does it rise to the level of aggravated assault, which is included? Is a threat significant or immediate enough to trigger the institution’s timely warning or emergency response obligations? Was a crime committed on public property close enough to campus to require disclosure?

To avoid running afoul of the Clery Act, institutions should develop clear policies and procedures detailing how - and by whom - these decisions are made. When incidents occur, institutions should document the decision-making process. In the event of a violation, the authorities will likely consider school officials' good-faith compliance efforts as a mitigating factor prior to a decision on the imposition of penalties.

Assessing the risk

Keeping the campus community informed of incidences is extremely important, but it's even more important to take steps to prevent those events from occurring. Physical security systems - including alarms, cameras, lighting, locks, guards and other measures - are essential. But while access control is a key component of campus security, too often institutions underestimate the threat posed by people with legitimate access, such as new employees or service providers. That's why thorough background checks can be as vital a preventative tool as any other.

There's little question that safety is of paramount importance to anyone administering a learning institution. With the proper support and careful attention, Clery Act compliance can help contribute to just such a secure environment.

Published in Public Schools

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