Clery Act Compliance: Why Fines Are Getting So Big and How Colleges Can Avoid Them

Liberty University was fined $14 million for Clery Act violations. Two experts share why fines have gotten so massive and how schools can improve compliance.

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On March 5, 2024, the U.S. Department of Education issued Liberty University a $14 million fine over its violation of the Clery Act for its handling of sexual assault allegations. Liberty also violated the Clery Act in 2010, and the latest review found the school failed to initiate and sustain remedial action from those findings.

The penalty is the largest Clery fine in history, dwarfing the Department’s second-largest $4.5 million fine levied against Michigan State University in 2019 over its systemic failure to address longstanding sexual abuse allegations made against former sports doctor Larry Nassar. Before that, the largest fine was $2.4 million against Penn State in 2016 for its mishandling of abuse claims against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

The increase from 2019 to 2024 begs the question: Why have Clery violation fines grown exponentially in recent years?

Kyle Norton, director of regulatory compliance at the Healy+ Group, told Campus Safety the easiest answer is inflation (00:52). According to the CPI Inflation Calculator from the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, $100 in 2019 has the same buying power as $122.53 in 2024. More industry-specific reasons are a greater focus on violations related to the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA) and a different presidential administration (01:19).

“We’re in 2024, so any institution from this point going forward with a program review in place is entirely within the post-VAWA amendments for those review periods. So I think that one of the things that you saw from the Liberty [final program review determinations] was a focus on those VAWA-specific violations and how the enforcement of those has increased over time as well,” Norton said. “I think on the broader spectrum, what we’re seeing and what others are really interested to know about is this paradigm shift with the Department of Education and how they are enforcing the law using these larger fines as a deterrent. And it’s not that the authority was never there, they had that authority, but just that was not the way the previous administrations pursued those findings.”

2 Ways to Avoid Clery Act Fines

Although most Clery Act violations aren’t as egregious as Liberty’s, many schools that rely on federal funding and therefore must obey the Clery Act aren’t fully compliant and are subsequently at risk of being fined. A common mistake the Healy+ Group sees, according to Jenn Scott, a regulatory compliance consultant, is discrepancies in the crime statistics published in a school’s Annual Security Report (ASR) and what institutions enter into the Education Department’s online reporting form, the Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool (02:34).

“We’ll see schools just make typographical errors or not update their statistics within the cutting tool when they update them in the ASR as a result of an internal review or an audit, and that trips up a lot of schools,” she told Campus Safety. 

Another common mistake is that institutions often have policies or procedures that do not meet all Clery Act requirements (03:16).

“A lot of these policy statements have a variety of requirements or bullet points they want you to hit and we see institutions cover some but not all, or we’ll also see institutions whose policy statements don’t align with their actual current practices. What they’re saying they’re doing versus what they’re actually doing doesn’t match up,” she said. “In addition to not having policies across the board, there are dozens of policy statements that Clery requires, dozens of policies that inform that. And so not having policies to meet some of the particular requirements around things like VAWA requirements or timely warnings and emergency notifications, not having the required policies can be a big issue for campuses.”

An effective way to avoid Clery Act fines, Scott added, is to learn from the mistakes of other schools (04:19).

“[Campuses] are not making use of the sub-regulatory guidance that’s out there. There’s actually a lot of information that can be gleaned from final program review determinations, like what was just recently issued,” she said. “So Liberty University, those fine notices, those program review documents that the department will issue, are often a wealth of information about how the department is addressing particular aspects of Clery compliance, what they’re focused on, and some common things tripping schools up. Folks can really benefit from diving into those and seeing what’s in there.”

What Are Clery-Compliant Schools Doing Right?

While much focus is placed on campuses that have been heavily fined for Clery violations, plenty of schools handle Clery compliance extremely well. Scott said those schools often have what she refers to as “pan-institutional buy-in” (09:07).

“Pan-institutional buy-in is the recognition that Clery compliance takes participation and involvement and commitment from a wide variety of campus stakeholders, whether that’s your Title IX team, your real estate office, your compliance folks. It really is an institution-wide effort. A single person or a single office cannot institutionalize all of the Clery Act requirements and create a program that is successful,” she said. “Institutions who are able to do it well have figured out who all of their stakeholders are, what those various roles are, and have armed those individuals or those teams with the knowledge and the information that they need in order to be able to contribute to reporting data, to updating policies, to reflect all of the requirements, to make sure that policy aligns with practice, et cetera. Building campus-wide programs instead of housing all of the responsibility primarily with one individual or one campus unit is one of the biggest markers of success that we see.”

While pan-institutional buy-in is crucial, schools with dedicated Clery Act compliance staff members tend to be more successful (10:20).

“Many times we see issues, especially smaller institutions that have maybe a half of a full-time person or even a quarter of a full-time person dedicated to these efforts, and we know that while institutions may vary in size and the crimes that occur on and around their campuses, the process to comply is still the same. The roadmap still looks the same,” said Norton. “So not having a full-time staff member dedicated to this space, understanding the nuance that is involved, understanding Jen’s point about pan-institutional buy-in, and the collaboration that needs to exist with all of the campus partners, you can’t have administrative capability if you don’t have that dedicated Clery Act compliance team.”

In our chat, Norton and Scott also shared:

  1. Why higher reported crime rates aren’t necessarily a bad thing for campuses (05:31)
  2. Advice on how campuses can keep up with the many requirements of the Clery Act (11:41)

Healy+ Group to Present at the 2024 Campus Safety Conference

At the 2024 Campus Safety Conference, happening July 8-10 at the Omni Atlanta Hotel, Scott and Norton will discuss changes in the Education Department’s finding rubric and what that means for campuses in real dollars. They will also discuss pending changes to both the Clery Act and Title IX regulations, including the addition of hazing as a Clery Act crime that schools will be responsible for reporting on.

“Some of our big takeaways are going to be how do we take what we now understand to be this new paradigm, this new level of risk, and mitigate it, right?” Scott described. “How do we present this information to our leadership teams, get buy-in from other folks? What steps can campuses take to mitigate their risk of being found outside of compliance?”

The session will address several areas of institutional risk, including emergency response policies and procedures and best practices for sending timely warnings and emergency notifications to your campus, such as:

  • Utilizing a decision matrix to make determinations
  • Developing message templates to expedite sharing information with the community
  • Educating the campus community about the message types and managing their expectations

To learn more about session takeaways or to register for the event, visit CampusSafetyConference.com.

The full interview transcript is below and includes subhead descriptions to help break up the discussion into easily digestible parts.

Watch the full interview here or listen on the go on Apple or Spotify.

 


3 Reasons Why Clery Act Fines Are Growing Exponentially

Amy Rock (00:00): Hi everyone, and thank you for joining us in today’s discussion about Clery Act violations and fines. Speaking on the subject today are Jen Scott, a regulatory compliance consultant with the Healy+ Group, and Kyle Norton, who is the director of regulatory compliance, also at the Healy+ Group.

And now earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education fined Liberty University $14 million for violating the Clery Act. And before this time, the largest Clery fine was $4.5 million in 2019 against Michigan State University over its handling of abuse by former sports doctor Larry Nassar.

Both of you or either of you are welcome to take the first question that I’d like to ask which is why do you think Clery fines are getting so massive, seemingly exponential, at least from 2019 to now?

Kyle Norton (00:52): Well, I’ll jump in Amy, and I appreciate you asking the question and thanks you for having you with us. I think one of the easy answers to start with is inflation. We all know that the Department of Education, through the Federal Student Aid office, issues these fines that increase every year with respect to inflation. So right off the bat, we’re seeing numbers that increase each year because of that factor.

But I think there are two other larger components at play here. One of them has to do with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)-related violations. We’re in 2024, so any institution from this point going forward with a program review in place is entirely within the post-VAWA amendments for those review periods. So I think that one of the things that you saw from the Liberty FPRD (final program review determinations) was a focus on those VAWA-specific violations and how the enforcement of those has increased over time as well.

I think on the broader spectrum, what we’re seeing and what others are really interested to know about is this paradigm shift with the Department of Education and how they are enforcing the law using these larger fines as a deterrent. And it’s not that the authority was never there, they had that authority, but just that was not the way that previous administrations pursued those findings. So now looking at it as a deterrent, you can see $14 million certainly speaks to that.

Common Clery Act Mistakes

Amy Rock (02:25): You guys work with a lot of higher ed clients. What are the biggest mistakes you’ve seen clients make as it relates to the Clery Act?

Jen Scott (02:34): I’ll take this one. Clery Act compliance is complex. There’s a lot of moving parts to this. One of the biggest issues that we see is discrepancies in the crime statistics between what’s published in the Annual Security Report and what institutions enter into the campus security survey data analysis cutting tool, otherwise known as the cutting tool, so that online reporting form. And we’ll see schools just make typographical errors or not update their statistics within the cutting tool when they update them in the ASR as a result of an internal review or an audit. And that trips up a lot of schools.

Another one of the big mistakes that we see, or mistakes that we see happen often, is policies or policy statements that either don’t meet all of the Clery Act requirements — a lot of these policy statements have a variety of requirements or bullet points they want you to hit and we see institutions cover some but not all — or we’ll also see institutions whose policy statements don’t align with their actual current practices. So what they’re saying they’re doing versus what they’re actually doing doesn’t match up. And that can really trip schools up.

In addition to not having policies across the board, there are dozens of policy statements that Clery requires, dozens of policies that inform that. And so not having policies to meet some of the particular requirements around things like VAWA requirements or timely warnings and emergency notifications, not having the required policies can be a big issue for campuses.

One of the other things that we see is not making use of the subregulatory guidance that’s out there for campuses. There’s actually a lot of information that can be gleaned from final program review determinations or FPRDs, like what was just recently issued. So Liberty University, those fine notices, those program review documents that the department will issue, are often a wealth of information about how the department is addressing particular aspects of Clery compliance, what they’re focused on, some common things that are tripping schools up, and folks can really benefit from diving into those and seeing what’s in there.

Amy Rock (05:01): I found over the years of reporting on this, that geography is also very confusing, but if there’s a lot of more self-regulatory stuff out there that is helping campuses with that.

Jen Scott (05:13): Yeah, geography is definitely a tricky part of Clery compliance.

Kyle Norton (05:17): Particularly when the institutions have medical centers that are involved because it gets more complex than some institutions could even imagine.

Why Higher Reported Crimes Don’t Equate to ‘Less Safe’

Amy Rock (05:27): Which a lot of our readers do have a joint campus like that. And now, Jen, you had mentioned the discrepancy in crime reporting, and I just wanted to note, obviously that’s not good for current students — they need to know the culture and how much they need to be aware of — but also prospective students because I find parents and students care a lot more about campus safety than they did 10 or so years ago. They’re checking to make sure your campus is transparent in its crime and also it’s preventative and responsive measures to crime. And we’ve said it a million times and you guys know, higher reports of crimes doesn’t necessarily mean that the campus is more dangerous. They’re either very transparent with their campus about reporting crimes or they just want to be honest because if you get found out to be not honest, it’s not good.

Jen Scott (06:16): That’s a really important point, Amy. I’m glad you brought it up because this is a huge point of anxiety for campuses — if our crime statistics go up, is the message that our campus is no longer safe or is becoming less safe because the numbers are changing? But actually what we see, particularly when it comes to sexual assault crimes and VAWA crimes, the more work a campus does to build a support structure and a reporting infrastructure that students, staff and faculty feel comfortable with, the more those incidents are going to be actually reported. And that’s not necessarily an increase in what’s happening. It’s an indicator that a campus has built a response structure that’s actually working for the folks who need to use it, that folks feel supported by the campus and they feel comfortable coming forward to avail themselves of interim support measures, potential disciplinary processes, et cetera. So it’s actually a better reflection of what’s really happening as opposed to an increase in crime when you see those numbers go up.

Kyle Norton (07:21): Yeah, I think that’s important, Jen. And there are two specific ways that come to the top of my mind that manifest within that space. One would be institutions who develop a really strong Title IX Notice of Rights and Options to provide to survivors — not just if they report to Title IX, not just if they report to the PD, but any of those CSAs across the campus who stand ready with that information to provide at that time so that survivors have those options and resources and know how to report if they choose to do so.

But then you also have, on a grander level, not just with that Notice of Rights and Options, but on a grander level with respect to informing the campus as to their rights across the board, looking at the statements that are in the ASR and other VAWA-related policies that allow students those same supportive measures in a really clear and concise way. Because Jen, I think you will agree with me that the way in which institutions sometimes will include VAWA-related policies and policy information can sometimes be wholesale throwing the entire policy in the document. And that’s one of the things that the department has found through their reviews as well and issued in guidance, is that that’s not enough and that’s not what they’re asking for. They want you to make it clean and concise and in a logical order that provides that information to students and not overwhelm them with policy language, if that makes sense.

Jen Scott (08:46): Right. They want you to make it consumer-friendly.

How to Improve Clery Compliance

Amy Rock (08:52): Absolutely. And now I feel like so much focus is on what campuses are doing wrong because those are more headline provoking, but campuses that you guys work with that handle Clery compliance extremely well, what sets them apart from others?

Jen Scott (09:07): One of the things that we see among successful campuses is what we call pan-institutional buy-in, right? The recognition that Clery compliance takes participation and involvement and commitment from a wide variety of campus stakeholders, whether that’s your Title IX team, your real estate office, your compliance folks. It really is an institution-wide effort. A single person or a single office cannot institutionalize all of the Clery Act requirements and create a program that is successful. So institutions who are able to do it well have figured out who all of their stakeholders are, what those various roles are, armed those individuals or those teams with the knowledge and the information that they need in order to be able to contribute to reporting data, to updating policies, to reflect all of the requirements, to making sure that policy aligns with practice, et cetera. So building campus-wide programs instead of housing all of the responsibility primarily with one individual or one campus unit is one of the biggest markers of success that we see.

Kyle Norton (10:20): And then I think of course, and this will always depend on the institution size and other factors, but having a dedicated Clery Act compliance staff member helps to buy into that idea of administrative capability, which is another violation that the administration within the Education Department has found in their reviews as well. Many times we see, especially smaller institutions that have maybe a half of a full-time person or even a quarter of a full-time person dedicated to these efforts, and we know that while institutions may vary in size and the crimes that occur on and around their campuses, the process to comply is still the same. The roadmap looks the same. So not having a full-time staff member dedicated to this space, understanding the nuance that is involved, understanding Jen’s point about pan-institutional buy-in, and the collaboration that needs to exist with all of the campus partners, you can’t have administrative capability if you don’t have that dedicated Clery Act compliance team.

Resources for Campuses Struggling to Meet Clery Requirements

Amy Rock (11:24): Great. Now, do either of you have advice for a campus that they know the best practices they should follow, but they might be struggling to keep up with all the requirements for whatever the reason may be, whether it’s finances, lack of access to resources, etc.?

Kyle Norton (11:41): I think one of the things that we have seen is that institutions and states and systems are organizing their own really help groups, so statewide Clery Act compliance groups or systemwide Clery Act compliance groups where they are able to learn and share with each other. And I think the point of collaboration speaks so strongly here as well and across the board when it comes to Clery Act compliance, but when you are able to have that built-in support system — when we conduct our data audits and file reviews for institutions, we call it the hive mind — so not one single individual is going to have all the right answers, but when you come together as the collective, it’s incredible what knowledge you can share amongst each other. So having those support groups is important.

To Jen’s point earlier, taking advantage of the free federal information that exists within this space. So whether it’s subregulatory guidance through program reviews, fine notices, other news that just happens to be released, webinars, training, there’s so much information out there, many times free to take advantage of that I think institutions are just waiting for the opportunity to do. They just need somebody to tell them to do it. And then of course, there’s the opportunity to hire the consultant who, speaking from our perspective, has been through this both on the practitioner side and the consulting side. But I think those communities are important to find. Jen, I don’t know if there’s other spaces that you see in terms of campuses that might be struggling in the space.

Jen Scott (13:19): No, Kyle, I mean, I think to your point earlier, finding that community of practitioners who are in your space can be invaluable. Even in those moments when you find yourself with a situation you haven’t yet dealt with, something new comes across your desk as a practitioner or we used to call it the rabbit hole, where you just kind of are overthinking something and can’t get yourself out of your own way, having another practitioner who you’re able to bounce things off of and have that sounding board, whether it’s an email listserv or someone you can pick up the phone and call, can be invaluable in trying to do these things.

2024 Campus Safety Conference: $37 Thousand or $37 Million? The New Cost of Violating the Clery Act

Amy Rock (13:54): Awesome. Well said. Thank you. And now I just wanted to jump to the Campus Safety Conference. You guys will both be speaking with us there, that is July 8-10 in Atlanta. And can you just give listeners an overview of what they can expect from the session and maybe what will be some practical takeaways that they can expect to bring back with them to their campuses?

Jen Scott (14:17): So one of the first things that we’re going to talk about in this presentation is this potential sort of paradigm shift that we’re seeing in the finding rubric and what that means for campuses in real dollars in terms of different ways that the department is choosing to fine for potential Clery Act violations. We’re also going to talk about pending changes to the law, including some things that we’ve been hearing about for a minute, like adding hazing as a Clery Act crime that schools will be responsible for reporting on.

Some of our big takeaways are going to be how do we take what we now understand to be this new paradigm, this new level of risk, and mitigate it, right? How do we present this information to our leadership teams, get buy-in from other folks? What steps can campuses take to mitigate their risk of being found outside of compliance?

Amy Rock (15:11): Kyle, no pressure. Anything you want to add?

Kyle Norton (15:14): I think that what’s most important is that through this work — and we’ve been doing this for decades as an organization and collectively hundreds of years amongst us in this space — I think that having those close connections and tie-ins with institutions, having developed a close partnership with the Department of Education and through our partners at Cozen O’Connor, it is really interesting to be on top of these changes and to share this information with the communities at large. And I’m just really looking forward to the opportunity to share what we’ve come to know as best practices and ways to mitigate their Clery Act compliance risk moving forward for campuses around the country.

Amy Rock (15:57): You guys have both mentioned at one point throughout our discussion, the importance of relying on other practitioners, and that’s honestly my favorite part about being onsite at the Campus Safety Conference. Seeing practitioners, someone from the west coast, someone from the east coast, they have similar size schools, they’re sharing ideas, “Oh, I didn’t think of that. We have the same problem. How are you addressing it?” It’s just great to see it. It just really makes me happy.

Kyle Norton (16:26): Absolutely. And whether it’s how to conduct your own Clery Act program review without hiring somebody from the outside, looking through your ASR and finding those policy statements that don’t quite add up, or even working with your internal audit team to develop that internal process to keep within compliance as the years go by, there are lots of specific pieces that we’ll be hitting, again, that we’re very excited to share.

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About the Author

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Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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