SAN MARCOS (Texas Tribune) — Texas State University, under scrutiny from federal authorities, says it misreported campus crimes in recent years and is overhauling the way it tracks and records crime statistics for its locations in Round Rock and San Marcos.
At issue is Texas State’s compliance withthe Clery Act, a federal statute that requires universities to report campus crime data and promptly warn students about ongoing or serious safety threats. Schools that don’t adhere to the rules can face significant financial penalties.
The U.S. Department of Education has been working with the university’s police department to ensure it submits accurate information in an annual campus security report due next month, and Texas State officers have spent weeks combing through crime records from the past three years. School officials say the correct crime figures will be in the October report, and they expect some numbers to differ from those published before.
“We want to paint an accurate picture for our prospective students and employees and so I think … if we’ve done a disservice to our community, it’s been in that way — that we did not provide them accurate information to make informed decisions about attending school or working here,” said Texas State’s police chief Laurie Clouse, who joined the department in February.
“We’re committed to getting it right,” said Eric Algoe, a university vice president who has overseen the police department since last October. Neither official was supervising the department when the reports under review were filed.
School officials said an Education Department employee contacted them in mid-2019, as the San Marcos area was seeing an uptick in crime. Between February and May, three students were found dead in off-campus residences, including two in a suspected murder-suicide. There were also two armed robberies on university grounds.
According to Algoe, the activity caught the eye of the department official, who then noticed the university’s publicly reported crime statistics “did not look right, based upon the size of the institution.” The federal agency offered to help the school with its report this year, he said — and Texas State has already started changing its procedures.
School officials say the Education Department has not told them they’re under formal review, an often lengthy process that can culminate in fines of more than $57,000 per violation. The department has instead provided “technical assistance” to help them come into compliance.
The Education Department did not respond to questions as of publication time.
Texas State has acknowledged flaws in the crime reporting process, saying in a statement: “The system previously in place did not produce accurate statistics.”
The university could not provide specific examples of training officers had received in Clery, and before Clouse’s arrival, one police department employee handled its reporting requirements, alongside their other job duties.
Clouse, who formed a Clery committee within a month of joining, soon noticed some of the old numbers seemed off.
Between 2015 and 2017, for example, the university reported nine rapes and seven instances of fondling on its campuses and certain surrounding properties. By contrast, the University of North Texas reported 32 rapes, 22 instances of fondling and four statutory rapes during that period; the University of Houston’s crime statistics include 31 rapes and 37 fondling incidents, and Texas Tech University’s Lubbock campus reported 24 rapes and seven fondling incidents.
Texas State had some 39,000 students enrolled in 2018, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. UNT and Texas Tech each had about 38,000, and UH’s main campus had upwards of 46,000. It’s difficult to compare campus-to-campus crime data because of characteristics like how many students commute to campus, whether the university is in an urban or rural setting and the size of the student body.
“I can’t really speculate about the way it had been done previously, other than to acknowledge that clearly, the way it was being done previously resulted in an inaccurate report,” said Algoe, who heads the university’s Finance and Support Services division. “We know that did not work.”
Texas State has already taken steps to reform its Clery processes, including providing new training to employees and forming a compliance committee, with representatives from many university departments. The school is also working with a national Clery center that will review their future security reports.
A vice president for student affairs, Joanne Smith, used to oversee the police department before it was transferred to Algoe. Algoe said the move was recommended by outside consultants, who said many police departments don’t report to student life officials due to perceived conflicts of interest. The university declined to make Smith available for an interview, opting to provide written responses from the school.
Algoe also said Clouse was hired in part for her experience working in a university police department and familiarity with Clery. Her last two predecessors had more traditional law enforcement backgrounds outside of higher education institutions. “I think that is a really important part of the puzzle about how this happened,” Algoe said.
Several former police department employees blamed the administration for not acting more quickly.
Former chief Jose Bañales, who served from 2016 to 2018, said he had raised issues about Clery compliance early in his tenure and that the university administration was “slow to respond.” He said he was “not at all” surprised by the new federal scrutiny.
“The administration was hesitant to impose some of those requirements on other departments within the university that, in my opinion, had a responsibility to come into compliance with Clery. Clery is not just the responsibility of the police department. Clery is the responsibility of the entire institution,” Bañales said.
“We did not have a comprehensive system that could capture the stats and the data. It was an issue. There was a lot of, I would say, manual manipulation of the system” — inputting and calculating statistics in an “archaic” database — “to arrive at the numbers that we needed to report,” he said. The administration cited budgetary concerns in rebuffing his request for a new system and more training, Bañales said.
His former chief of staff, Alexander Villalobos, said: “We just weren’t provided the support we needed to do the job at hand.”
Another former employee, sergeant Johnny Johnston, said: “I think my biggest concern is we’re not providing the safety to the community that we should be.”
“My kids are getting to the point where they’re going to be attending college and if I’m looking at these numbers — everyone’s under the assumption that they’re correct,” said Johnston, who left the university in 2017.
The chief that preceded Bañales, Ralph Meyer, said he didn’t think there were major Clery issues during his 20-plus year tenure, but that the requirements were too big a responsibility for one person.
Texas State officials were told Clery compliance was a weakness at the university in late 2018. A peer review — requested and paid for by the university — found the school was “seriously deficient in emergency management planning, operations, and response and in overall compliance.” It was conducted through an International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators program.
An executive summary of the report said the police department was understaffed for a university the size of Texas State, and that lack of personnel was a “serious concern” across the board, including in parts of the department dedicated to patrol and records. Algoe said they have changed the compensation structure of the department and that new officers will be added to the force. Students who had worked part-time as dispatchers — answering calls and sending officers out — have also been replaced with full-time employees.
The report came on the heels of high-level departures in the police department, including the resignation of former chief Bañales in the early summer of 2018. Though the departures coincided with months of racial tensions on campus, three sources with knowledge of the matter — as well as Bañales — said the student protests were not central to the decisions.
Bañales said he departed due to “lack of support from the administration,” and a feeling that he didn’t have final authority on new hires and personnel matters.
Villalobos, who left the department around the same time, said he resigned to pursue a new opportunity.
The university declined to comment on the departures of the former police officials, saying they were personnel matters.
The summary of the peer-review report noted that turnover in Texas State’s police leadership had led to a lack of accountability within the department’s chain of command. It also said the department had an “inadequate focus on policing within a university environment,” and that there was insufficient training in key areas.
The university did not release the full peer-review report under public information laws, citing a ruling from the Texas Attorney General’s office. The basis of the withholdingappears in part to be an argument that the information “would enable terrorists and other criminals to anticipate weaknesses” and allow bad actors to target vulnerable areas of the university.
Texas State officials said they did not know if the school would be investigated or penalized by the Education Department. A government website says formal reviews may be launched for a variety of reasons, including if a complaint is received, an incident reported in the media sparks concern or if an independent audit identifies issues.
But experts say it’s not uncommon for the agency to offer technical assistance to help schools abide by Clery Act regulations.
S. Daniel Carter, a Georgia-based campus security consultant, said “tech assists” are faster, less laborious and meant to avoid escalating issues to a formal review.
“The goal is accurate crime reporting, not just to impose fines,” Carter said. “What we do see is that a lot of schools have established inadequate reporting procedures and they have just remained in place for many years. It’s just a question of going in advising them and making sure that the changes are made.”
Federal data covering the last decade shows the agency has reviewed dozens of universities’ compliance with the campus safety regulations. Earlier this month, it levied a $4.5 million fine on Michigan State University for its handling of the Larry Nassar scandal. In 2018, the University of Montana received a nearly $1 million penalty over violations that included failing to correctly report eight sexual offenses over three years. The school successfully reduced the fine to $395,000.
At Texas State, Algoe said the university was committed to Clery compliance and had been open about the peer-review report’s findings. The executive summary was shared with campus stakeholders, including student leaders, he said.
“We’re committed to producing accurate reporting and certainly the fact that we did not do that in the past is a problem,” he said. “We don’t yet know the degree of the changes we’re going to make because… we are still actively going through records today.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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