Reporting Sexual Assault: What The Clery Act Doesn’t Tell Us
When Jeanne Clery began her college search, her parents, Howard and Connie Clery, were most concerned about their daughter’s safety. Their two sons had attended Tulane University without issue, and Jeanne almost enrolled at the New Orleans school. But news that a female student had been murdered off-campus greatly concerned the Clery parents. Jeanne soon decided to attend Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, instead. The rural setting and proximity to her home appeared to be much safer than Tulane.
It was at Lehigh University that Jeanne was killed.
Police said Josoph Henry, a sophomore at Lehigh, brutalized Clery by raping and sodomizing her, crushing her esophagus with a metal coil until she was lifeless. Her body sustained bite marks and injuries from a smashed bottle. He bloviated about the murder to his friends shortly after, his victim’s belongings now in his possession. Clery’s parents were horrified by the nature of their daughter’s passing.
“Most Americans saw [the space shuttle] Challenger splinter into a billion pieces,” Connie Clery told People Magazine in 1990. “That’s what happened to our hearts.”
But they were also appalled by the security lapses at Lehigh—Henry passed through the entrance to Clery’s dorm with ease, where the doors should should have been locked but were propped open with pizza boxes for convenience. And the school suffered a spike in violent crime (including rape, robbery and assault) prior to and during Clery’s enrollment, which her parents were unaware of because the data was only available through the FBI (and not easily accessible since the internet did not exist yet). Henry himself had lost a job because of “violent behavior,” and on one occasion hurtled a rock through a girl’s window.
With money won from a lawsuit settlement with Lehigh, the Clerys embarked on a campaign to systemically change campus safety and transparency. This culminated in the passing of the Clery Act in 1990, which required all colleges and universities that receive federal funding to make on-campus crime statistics available to the public. The US Department of Education collects the data and schools now post annual reports online that include their crime statistics.
More than 25 years later, a new kind of movement is sweeping college campuses across the country. Rape culture is facing unprecedented scrutiny as survivors and advocates demand institutions to hold perpetrators accountable. According to one study, nearly one in five females will be sexually assaulted during their time at college. While prospective families may have a resource to try and assess the safety of any school, Clery Act data has been fed through a prism of cultural and institutional variables. Those forces effectively work in concert to dramatically distort and minimize the magnitude of sexual assault on college campuses. One in five female students may be assaulted, but a tiny fraction of those crimes are being recorded in Clery reports.
Sylvia Spears, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Emerson College, says Clery data is reliably unreliable.
“While the intention of the Clery Act is really important and it holds institutions’ feet to the fire, to a certain extent, it’s not enough because there are too many variables that allow the data to fall through or not get counted,” she said. “The Clery ends up to be a snapshot, a little bit of an indicator of climate more than actual sexual assault—which is not its intention.”
If anything, Clery Act data on sexual assault may allow administrators to believe their school is impervious to power-based violence. One survey showed college presidents believe rape is prevalent nationwide—just not on their own campuses.
When Spears began her job at Emerson in 2012, she said, she asked an administrator about how the school handles such cases. Their response?
“Sexual assault is not an issue at Emerson. It’s not an issue for us. We might get one, two reports a year.”
And according to Clery data, that administrator would be right. In 2012, Emerson College reported only one instance of rape. A year later, the figure jumped to nine and several students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The office is responsible for enforcing federal laws that prohibit discrimination in programs that receive federal funding. Complaints are usually filed based on practices outlawed in Titles IX (sex discrimination) and VI (racial discrimination). Students alleged Emerson’s lackluster response to sexual assault cases violated Title IX. But Emerson is not alone: As of July 2015, 124 colleges are under investigation for Title IX violations due to their handling of sexual assault cases.
In a ranking of forcible sex offense rates among Massachusetts higher education institutions, small, liberal arts schools appear to dominate.
At the top of the list in 2014 (the most recent year data is available) is Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an early college program on a rural campus tucked away in the southwest corner of Massachusetts. Forcible sex offenses surged there from one report in 2013 to nine the next year.
Dean Leslie Davidson declined an interview but wrote in an email that Bard has “taken a number of measures over the past several years intended to further foster a safe and welcoming environment, including additional and more comprehensive education and outreach efforts for students. The result, which we anticipated and welcome, is a community that is better informed and more comfortable coming forward with concerns.”
It’s a confusing yet fair explanation, according to Spears. She says higher numbers may actually signify a more progressive approach to reporting assault.
“Institutions that have high numbers—it’s not always just that high incidents are happening,” Spears said. “It’s that you’ve created a culture where people feel they can report and will be supported in that process.”
Confidentiality and anonymity add another layer of complexity to Clery data. Greta Spoering is the Survivor Advocate at Emerson College’s Violence Prevention and Response office. She works as a confidential counselor for people who have been impacted by power-based interpersonal violence.
She says making resources available to survivors, and respecting their privacy, should be any institution’s first priority. Seeking an absolute count of incidents on a given campus may be fruitless because, according to Spoering, rape culture’s ubiquity is already well established.
“For me, it’s a pretty easy reconciliation,” said Spoering. “If we already know the problem, we know it’s happening, the thing we can do is really help provide choice and consent and options and letting somebody be able to direct what they want to do with their information. That inherently doesn’t seem incongruous to me.”
Only 12 percent of survivors report their assaults to law enforcement for a variety of reasons. Spoering says reporting can be traumatizing for survivors, and that verbalizing their experiences for the first time can cause them to relive the violence.
“Do people actually feel supported who’ve experienced violence? Do people know what their resources are? If somebody sees something happen, do they actually step in and become an active bystander? All of those things are more anecdotal but are ways to get a pulse of the community in general,” said Spoering.
But if violence at college campuses had to be quantified, large-scale, anonymous surveys may prove to be the best option. A White House task force on college sexual assault suggested institutions administer this type of questionnaire, referred to as a climate survey, to better gauge how endemic rape culture is on their campuses. Students are asked a variety of questions, including whether they have been assaulted, and if so, where and when. They also typically ask if they feel prepared by their institution to prevent or report violence.
Spoering said there is reliability and consistency among anonymous surveys by different schools, meaning rates of sexual assault are similar among different schools and reflect national statistics. They also reveal stark discrepancies between Clery Act data and the actual rate of incidents. While Clery data is a snapshot of one year, survey takers are asked whether they have been assaulted at all during their schooling. Even so, the two types of data sets leave vastly different impressions.
Amendments to the Clery Act in 2014 show just how vulnerable the classifications had been until that point.
From the law’s creation until 2014, colleges were only asked to report whether an assault was “non-forcible” or “forcible.” As a result, an on-campus groping and on-campus rape were indistinguishable when looking at Clery data. The new amendment offered far more descriptive categories: “non-forcible sexual assault” was broken into incest or statutory rape. “Forcible” became rape or fondling.
Campus staff were not able to use as much discretion when deciding how to log an attack. In other words, if a report did not involve someone underage or two adults who were related, it could not be classified as non-forcible.
Even so, Spears says there is still too much power left in the hands of the people logging reports.
“Different schools have different standards for what constitutes a rape, a forcible rape,” she said. “There are so many places where something could be miscategorized unless you have oversight.”
And federal oversight is in short supply. A 2016 request for increased funding by the Department of Education says the Office for Civil Rights’ complaint caseload has become burdensome due to staff cuts and an increase in claims that are complex and high-profile. Subsequently, the agency that is tasked with investigating how schools handle sexual assault and Clery Act compliance is only probing half of all complaints made.
When Spears led a recent seminar for parents of prospective students, she hoped to calm their fears about sending their children off to school.
“I asked one parent what they wanted from this community, and they said a place that cares about my daughter and where she is safe,” Spears said. “And you can unpack that—is she a parent who looks at the Clery data, and if it has zero numbers, thinks her daughter is safe? Versus an institution that might have higher numbers but they have all the resources and support and tons of education going on. That’s some of the complexity.”