It might be tempting to use the words “confidential" and “anonymous” interchangeably when describing a crime report that doesn’t disclose a victim or reporter’s identity. In higher education, however, there’s a big difference between the two. Any institution that ignores that distinction does so at their peril.
Misclassifying confidential reporting and anonymous reporting can result in a violation of the Clery Act, and that can cost a college up to $67,544 per violation.
A quick recap of the Clery Act
Named for a college freshman who was assaulted and killed in her dorm room in 1986, The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or Clery Act, is a federal statute requiring colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and around their campuses.
The law requires colleges and universities to disclose any crime or allegation of a crime that has been reported on or near campus. There are a few different ways to collect that information: reports may be made non-anonymously (as in a report made directly to campus safety or local police), anonymously, or confidentially.
What is an anonymous report?
Under Clery, an anonymous report is one in which the reporter of the crime is not known to any campus official.
Clery neither requires nor precludes an institution from offering anonymous reporting options, although any anonymous reports must be accepted if they contain sufficient information to validate the elements of a crime (such as the location where the crime took place).
While unregulated by Clery, S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, recommends that colleges offer an anonymous reporting program.
What is a confidential report?
A confidential report is one where the identity of the reporter is not made known to personnel, although the official receiving the report knows who the reporter is. “Voluntary, confidential” reporting is covered by the Clery Act, and is quite different from anonymous reporting.
The U.S. Department of Education established the option of “voluntary, confidential” reporting in 1999 in order to include statistics for crime reports made to mental health or religious counselors. Confidential reporting programs are not mandatory; schools don’t have to offer a confidential reporting option, and if they do, the option must meet a specific set of criteria:
There must be a designated recipient of confidential reports
The recipient must have no obligations under state law, Title IX, or otherwise to take action on the content of the reports
The recipient must be qualified and empowered on their own to classify and count offenses as well as make decisions about whether or not to issue a timely warning to the campus about a threat
It is tough for many campuses to offer such a program, specifically because it can be hard to find a person qualified to take Clery reports without being obligated to take action on the crimes in the confidential reports. Additionally many campus police departments have public records requirements which make offering a voluntary, confidential option difficult. According to Carter, few campuses actually offer this option.
“Due to the practicalities involved it has been my experience that there is widespread acceptance of disclosing something that either isn’t fully ‘confidential’ and or is an ‘anonymous’ reporting option,” said Carter. “I don’t think anybody has empirical data on this, but based on what I’ve seen I would estimate that a majority of colleges and universities disclose a reporting option other than the fully ‘confidential’ option as it was originally intended.”
Unfortunately, the wording of those disclosures can lead to Clery violations.
How do colleges and universities run afoul of Clery?
Because it’s so difficult to offer a voluntary, confidential reporting option, the Clery Act simply requires that institutions must state whether or not they offer such a program. If they do, they must explain how the program works. If they do not, they must state why there is no program.
This is where institutions tend to run into trouble. If a college doesn’t explain whether they have a confidential option or not, they are in violation of Clery.
This means that if, rather than saying whether or not they offer a voluntary, confidential reporting program, they instead describe their anonymous reporting program, they’re in violation of Clery because they did not answer the question.
Colleges can keep themselves out of trouble by simply stating they don’t have a voluntary, confidential reporting option — even if they have a robust anonymous reporting option.
What is the best way to handle reporting?
According to Carter, it’s best practice for campuses to offer anonymous reporting and to allow students to report crimes to officials other than campus police. This has been put into practice at many institutions throughout the United States, he said.
It can also be valuable to offer non-anonymous reporting options, such as software that allows students to easily report crimes on their mobile phones. However, if you’re considering implementing a tool that allows students to report threats, it should fulfill a few specific requirements. For example, while students’ identities should be made known to officials, the students’ peers should not know who has reported a threat.
To learn more about accountable reporting and how you can implement it at your campus, get in touch with Circadian Risk. Circadian Risk will be in booth #412 at IACLEA from June 27 to 30 in Orlando, Florida. We look forward to talking with you.
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