Photo: Julio Cortez, Staff
Welder Hall at University of St. Thomas is seen on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008, in Houston. ( Julio Cortez / Chronicle )
Welder Hall at University of St. Thomas is seen on Thursday, Sept….
The University of St. Thomas faces $172,000 in fines after a federal investigation found it underreported campus crimes, including a forcible sex offense and robbery.
The U.S. Department of Education also found the university violated the Clery Act by failing to include key information required in an annual report, including details of safety policies.
“UST students and employees were denied important safety information about how to prevent crime; where to report incidents; their rights after an alleged sex offense has occurred; and information about the school’s missing student notification procedures,” an Education Department letter from Sept. 27 to President Richard Ludwick said. “Students and employees cannot benefit from policies and procedures that have not been provided to them.”
The federal Clery Act, named for Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery who was raped and murdered on campus in 1986, requires universities to publish an annual document outlining their safety policies, crime notification systems and statistics on campus crime over the last three years. That document is called an annual security report.
St. Thomas is one of 10 universities fined this year for Clery Act violations.
It is the first Texas university since at least 2015 to be fined under the law.
Ludwick, who began at the university over the summer, said Monday that administrators plan to evaluate the allegations “seriously” and will then assess if St. Thomas will appeal the findings through a hearing or written response. This process must occur by Oct. 20.
The university will review St. Thomas’ safety policies and procedures, he said, characterizing the university as “exceedingly compliant” after adding resources to the police department and consulting with outside safety experts.
He said the university was “disappointed” by the fine, which he said was too high and shows that federal regulators hold more and more responsibility for regulating higher education.
“I think a fine is one way that you gain people’s compliance, but when they’re already seeking to comply, it has a deleterious effect … what we want to do always is to make sure that our students, faculty, staff, other employees and visitors to campus are safe,” Ludwick said.
Complying with the Clery Act is important because current and prospective students and employees should know information on safety to make personal decisions and understand their rights and obligations, the Education Department wrote in its letter.
The letter describing St. Thomas’ “very serious and numerous” violations was from Susan Crim, who directs the federal administrative actions and appeals service group of the Education Department’s federal student aid and enforcement unit.
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It said that the investigation began after complaints that the university allegedly violated the Clery Act by not including sexual assault prevention and response procedures and not properly disclosing reported crimes.
Complainants at the time also accused St. Thomas of not issuing its 2012 annual security report by a federally required deadline.
University spokeswoman Sandra Soliz said in an email that the university’s last reporting cycles have been timely.
As part of their investigation, federal officials reviewed samples of St. Thomas’ incident reports, arrest records and student and employee discipline documents between 2008 and 2015, the letter said.
The department said about $100,000 of the fines came because St. Thomas did not properly report 2012 and 2013 crime – including a forcible sexual offense, aggravated assault, robbery and motor vehicle theft – in a 2015 annual security report and in data provided to the Education Department. Eleven crimes in total were omitted from the two reports.
Other fines came because St. Thomas did not include required details on its safety policies in its 2012, 2014 and 2015 annual security reports.
For example, in 2015, the university did not include in its annual security report any outline of policy regarding disciplinary action in cases of alleged dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking, the Education Department said.
Also, according to the letter, the university did not collect crime and fire statistics from the St. Mary’s Seminary Campus, which the department said was required. Ludwick said this last finding will be reviewed, as he said the definition of campus may not include St. Mary’s, where St. Thomas hosts a theology program.
Clery Act consultants and education lawyers characterized these findings as common across universities that are reviewed for their compliance with the stringent regulations.
“These were all, basically, sloppy errors,” said S. Daniel Carter, a longtime campus safety consultant who leads Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses LLC. “It does deny students and others an accurate picture of campus safety, but not in the same way as if you were thinking they were completely suppressing the data.”
Speaking generally, he said compliance with the act requires good communication to avoid these mistakes.
Reporting procedures can get complicated, and universities often have questions on what specifically is defined as part of their campus, said Hayley Hanson, a partner and education practice group leader at Husch Blackwell, a Missouri-based firm.
Many Clery Act violations come when university campuses don’t think proactively about campus safety, said Alison Kiss, executive director of a Pennsylvania nonprofit called the Clery Center.
Presidents and chancellors should often speak publicly about campus crime to create a culture of transparency, she said.
“I don’t think it’s a tremendously onerous task, but there needs to be a buy-in from college and university leadership to support those who are responsible for campus safety,” she said.
Ludwick said administrators plan to examine “what reasonable steps are appropriate” to “exceed” the law’s standards and keep the campus safe.
The university has recently hired a new police chief with “new eyes” to assess the situation and has consulted with outside experts to ensure compliance with various reporting standards, he said.