Of all the requirements of the Jeanne Clery Act college and university communities most frequently associate it with the timely warning. As an original part of the 1990 law timely warnings have fundamentally changed how students and employees learn about campus crime in a way that is now firmly enshrined in their cultures as it is what they most frequently see. As a result, they now often expect to be warned about crimes including those that technically fall outside Clery geography but may nonetheless affect the campus. Addressing these expectations begins with a clear policy shaped with stakeholder input.
Although not required by the law, addressing off-campus crimes that may present an ongoing threat to students, employees, and others on campus in timely warning policy is an important way of meeting community expectations. Understanding and managing those expectations is the first step in developing a sound policy that will shape practice going forward so that it won’t be handled ad hoc in the middle of an emergency situation. As with all things Clery the underlying goal is creating a safer learning environment.
When serious crimes like shootings or armed robberies occur either in adjacent neighborhoods that are heavily populated by students, or even miles away along thoroughfares that lead directly into campus there is an understandable interest in learning about them. Students and employees accustomed to getting a prompt notice of serious crimes to their email inbox, via text message, or other channel often don’t understand why the first they hear about one of these other types of incidents is from third parties on social media and or the news media (in some instances learning by being asked to respond to the crime by news media in “person on the street” type interviews).
Institutions will often have to look no further than existing community feedback – on social media, in campus news media, or other public forums – to see what these expectations are. Convening stakeholders to gather more detail is another important step. No broader campus community is the same as any other so no hard and fast rules, such as covering any major crime occurring within one mile of a campus border (one mile north may be a heavily populated student neighborhood while the southern border is a river), are going to meet this need. Understanding the scope of locations your students and employees consider to be a part of the broader campus community is essential. Universal agreement may not be possible, but the goal should be to aim for a general consensus.
Assessing your own capacity to quickly gather information about off-campus crimes, exploring possible changes to that capacity, and explaining this to the campus community is also an essential element in creating an effective policy. Institutions with sworn law enforcement that either have state-wide police powers or derive their power through an arrangement with the local law enforcement agency are going to be privy to far more crime information than police who are limited to the campus or unsworn security personnel.
When campus law enforcement is already tied-in to local dispatch getting information about off-campus threats quickly is already possible, and an effective policy will include a set list of locations, just like you should use for your Clery geography, so that your personnel can easily flag serious off-campus incidents for warning purposes. If they’re not then exploring options such as mutual aid agreements and radio interoperability to provide for this will not only help with issuing timely warnings but laying the groundwork to better respond to all-hazards emergency situations.
Unsworn security without tied-in communications may not be able to benefit from these arrangements, but seeking other open lines of communication, such as requesting a phone call, will help lay important groundwork for a range of safety matters. Methods of gathering this information should already be in place for crimes occurring within your Clery geography. This should all be clearly articulated to the campus community, so they know what to expect.
Effective communication across all the constituencies involved is key to success in both developing a policy and implementing it. Institutions need to understand what is expected, students and employees need to understand the realities of what the institution can know, and local first responders need to understand how this fits into the larger picture of public safety. The time invested in building these relationships will pay off, and may well save lives in ways well beyond issuing timely warnings.
Once you’ve assessed campus community expectations and information gathering capacity it is time to meld the two into an effective off-campus timely warning policy. In doing so it is important to understand that any timely warning policy isn’t just a brief statement in the Clery Act Annual Security Report (ASR). It is a set of detailed protocols that governs how personnel, usually but not always campus public safety professionals, receive information about covered crimes, determine if a crime is “Considered by the institution to represent a threat to students and employees”, and if that determination is yes compose and issue a warning “that will aid in the prevention of similar occurrence”.
Covering off-campus crimes in your timely warning policy should build on what is already there. The channels for receiving information in – from campus public safety and other officials and local law enforcement – as well as the channels for delivering information – emails, SMS text messaging, safety apps, social media, and other means – should already all be there. The new elements will be additional geography that is unique to your community and any additional law enforcement that may cover these areas but not your Clery geography.
“Alert-fatigue” is a factor that must be taken into account in any timely warning policy. Campus communities need to know that when they receive a warning (or an emergency notification) they need to take immediate action to protect themselves. So any warning should be limited to situations where there is an ongoing threat per the standards of the Clery Act, whether it be in Clery geography or outside it. Serious incidents that fall outside this, such as incidents that have been promptly resolved through an arrest for example where the institution determines there is not a threat, should be addressed through other communication channels, such as an opt-in email list.
In enshrining off-campus warnings in policy one of the major goals is consistency. The same standards for determining what is a threat and how it is communicated should be used across timely warnings. While, just like Clery geography, the areas covered for off-campus timely warnings may change from year-to-year, that should be consistent as well in the short term, something having a policy will support. Students aren’t likely to understand why they may receive a warning for an off-campus robbery at a bar near campus popular with students but not one for a shooting there two months later which can happen if the decisions are being made on an ad hoc basis.
The Clery Act sets the floor for campus community safety — not the ceiling. Judiciously issuing timely warnings for off-campus crimes consistent with a uniform policy is an important option for colleges and universities to consider in keeping their students and employees safe. Done correctly it can be a critically important tool to both more actively involve them as partners and better protect everyone in your campus community.