MEEHAN: Campus crime and the Clery Act: Colleges owe more to students than good education

Pat Meehan

Sexual assault on college campuses is a dirty little secret that needs to be brought out in the open. College communities can do much more to foster awareness, better protect their students and provide the kind of supportive environment that puts the interests of the victim first. But there needs to be the will to do so.

As a district attorney in Delaware County, my eyes were opened to the re-victimization that can occur through the disturbing case of a female college student who was sexually assaulted by a vacationing student after a holiday party. The assailant claimed the act was consensual and a less courageous, determined victim might have surrendered there. This victim did not, and neither did a resourceful prosecutor who discovered that another woman from the rapist’s college had a strikingly similar story to tell.

Unfortunately for this first victim, the prestigious New England college she attended buried the event. There would be no real investigation and no prosecution. Without a place to turn, the first victim was subjected to furtive taunts by her assailant and who left school. She felt only mildly vindicated when her testimony helped put the rapist behind bars for the second crime, which never should have happened.

This example is not an isolated incident but is symbolic of a problem where school officials discourage victims from moving forward with their cases or fail to take effective actions against perpetrators. It also highlights the importance of the Jeanne Clery Act, and how this federal law, which requires colleges to monitor crimes on campus, can awaken and inspire communities to provide better protection and support for victims.

First, the alarming facts according to a nationwide study completed last December by the National Institute of Justice report that sexual assault is widely considered the most under-reported crime in the United States. The study concludes that just under 3 percent of all college women become victims of rape during the nine months of a typical school year. This equates to 35 rapes for every 1,000 female students on campus.

More troubling is that less that 5 percent of completed and attempted rapes are brought to the attention of campus authorities or law enforcement. There is a fundamental disconnect if so many victims do not pursue remedies that might help them move from victim to survivor. Without that step, a victim never really heals.

The Clery Act requires schools to report the nature and number of crimes on campus – a sensitive topic this time of year, since high school seniors are narrowing down their college choices. But the act also requires schools to ensure victims’ rights. This is where more can be done.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported on local colleges’ and universities’ compliance with the Clery Act’s crime statistics reporting requirements over the past year. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings at the National Constitution Center in May of this year about the prevalence of campus crime and erroneous reporting under the Clery Act. Our local universities testified about their crime reporting methods. The hearings highlighted past inadequacies of the reports and current efforts to be more accurate and complete, such as the Clery Act’s intent to get crime information in the hands of students and their parents. We must push further to ensure that the victim support provisions of the Clery Act are as real and effective in crime prevention as they are intended to be.

Under the act, schools must define procedures for students to follow if a sex offense occurs. But, only about four in 10 schools offer any sexual assault training and that training is not for the general student population.

Schools must inform students of their option to notify proper law enforcement authorities, yet less than half tell students how to file criminal charges. Schools must notify students of counseling, mental health or student services for victims of sexual assault. The reality is that too few actually partner with rape crisis intervention specialists to ensure their availability to the victims.

Enlightened colleges consider allowing confidential reporting for victims; they teach faculty, staff and students the importance of preserving evidence, and they identify trained on-campus professionals to contact when a violation has occurred. These resources give victims more control over the pace and process of an on-campus resolution.

Responsible colleges and universities put the needs of the victim first. They go beyond the mere passive reporting of crime statistics and provide meaningful support. They realize that empowered victims confront their assailants and prevent the creation of future victims.