As the fall semester came to a close at Eastern Michigan University, most students were finishing finals and preparing to head home for winter break.
But on Dec. 16, 2006, university students found a disturbing message in their e-mail boxes that said a university custodian had found Laura Dickinson, a 22-year-old student, dead in her Hill Hall dormitory the day before.
Months later, area newspapers would report that she was found naked from the waist down, with a pillow covering her head and with traces of semen on her leg.
But at the time, the school issued a release announcing only that she had passed away unexpectedly. It said there was “no reason to suspect foul play,” according to a timeline posted on the university Web site.
In issuing the campus-wide notice, Eastern Michigan officials said they were following the federal Jeanne Clery Act.
The Clery Act, passed in 1990, requires all public and private colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to release information about campus crime and safety in a timely manner. It was named after Jeanne Clery, who was beaten, raped and murdered in her dormitory room at Lehigh University in April 1986.
Crimes that merit reports are murder, sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, manslaughter, arson and certain liquor, drug and weapons violations.
The university issued subsequent releases Dec. 18 and Jan. 12 to update students. Neither release gave a cause of death or mentioned a homicide investigation.
Ten weeks after Dickinson’s death, police arrested Orange Taylor III, another Eastern Michigan student, on charges of homicide, two counts of sexual criminal conduct, larceny and home invasion in connection with Dickinson’s death.
Her family and Eastern Michigan students and parents were outraged to learn that Dickinson’s death was a homicide, and many accused school officials of staging a cover-up. The scandal cost three top administrators, including the president, their jobs.
Security on Campus Inc., a Clery Act watchdog organization founded by Jeanne Clery’s family, called for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education.
In July, almost seven months after Dickinson’s death, the department issued an initial 18-page report, citing the university for seven violations of the Clery Act. The violations included failures to provide timely warnings, to properly disclose crime statistics, to report required statistics and to properly maintain the crime log, as well as the lack of a timely warning policy.
“Not only did EMU fail to disclose information that would enable the campus community to make informed decisions and take necessary precautions to protect themselves, but it issued misleading statements from the outset, providing false reassurance that foul play was not suspected, and that it had no knowledge of an ongoing criminal/homicide investigation prior to the arrest of the suspect,” the report said.
With an enrollment of about 23,000, the public university could be fined up to $27,500 for each violation of the act or lose some or all of its more than $108 million in federal student aid.
The department’s final report is expected by the end of August, after the university provides a response.
Since the inception of the act in 1990, the department has conducted hundreds of reviews, but only three schools have been fined, said Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus.
This investigation is the “fastest, most-quickly completed” review the department has conducted, largely because of “how serious it is,” he added.
In addition to the department’s investigation, the university hired an outside law firm to conduct an independent probe into the handling of information after the woman’s
Butzel Long, a Michigan-based law firm, provided the board of regents with a 568-page report June 8.
“The report reveals a systemic failure to comply with the federal Clery Act, including the failure to warn the campus of potential danger,” Board of Regents Chairman Thomas Sidlik said in a university statement. “The findings are clear: This university got it wrong. What happened was unacceptable.”
In response to the reports, the board’s eight regents unanimously voted to terminate President John Fallon, exactly two years into his five-year contract.
“Until we had change at the top, nobody would believe you’re serious,” Regent Francine Parker said at the special meeting during which the dismissal was formally announced.
The board also terminated Vice President of Student Affairs Jim Vick and Public Safety Director Cindy Hall.
“This board will not tolerate anyone who sabotages the educational mission of this university by participating in these destructive behavior patterns,” Sidlik said.
Fallon has maintained that he did not know about the homicide investigation until Taylor was arrested.
But Kevin Devine, director of student media at Eastern Michigan and adviser to the student newspaper, The Eastern Echo, said student editors could tell there was more to Dickinson’s death than police and administrators were saying.
Reporters, who had established “cordial relations” with the police chief and other officers, initially believed police when they said there was no reason to suspect foul play.
“They took their word for it,” Devine said.
But in the following weeks as the investigation dragged on and administrators remained tight-lipped, editors began to believe something more was going on.
“There were a lot of people who … were unable to talk or claimed they were under orders not to talk,” he said. “That was the point at which the student editors and reporters were starting to think there’s something funny about this.”
After a suspect was arrested, the newspaper, published three times a week, stayed on top of the story, Devine said. Editors stopped relying on information from administrators and started investigating wherever they could, he added.
When administrators announced that all dormitories had been secured, Devine said the features editor decided to experiment. He attempted to enter on-campus residence halls after midnight. He succeeded, managing to get into nearly all of the buildings and onto most of the floors through propped-open doors and loading docks.
Devine said the investigative piece was “a great lesson learned.”
“Don’t rely on the phone,” he said. “Go out and do it.”
Devine said that in hindsight, reporters should have filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act for records regarding the case.
“Perhaps we should have been more aggressive in doing it,” he said.
Christine Laughren, news editor at the Echo, said she covered Dickinson’s death for much of the spring semester. She advised journalists covering big news to stay organized and to ask the hard questions.
“You’ve got to go at it full force,” she said. “Start your FOIA requests right from the get-go.”
Laughren said she wished she had been more aggressive when interviewing police and administrators.
“If I could go back, I would definitely push more,” she said.
Importance of the Clery Act
Before Fallon was dismissed, he created a 16-point plan to increase security on the campus. The initiatives included working more collaboratively with local police to improve safety and security on and adjacent to the main campus.
The plan called for a complete campus facilities safety audit. Also, the Department of Public Safety now will be under the supervision of the vice president for business and finance, as recommended in the Butzel Long report.
Faculty offices are being rekeyed; the process of updating crime statistics has begun; and the Department of Public Safety continues to offer crime prevention programs, the board of regents said.
Finally, Security on Campus, the organization that filed the original complaint, was scheduled to conduct Clery Act compliance training on campus Aug. 16.
Carter said the university’s mishandling of information is not the result of deficiencies in the Clery Act but solely the result of the school failing to comply with the act.
“Security is not [administrators’] top priority,” Carter said. “Education is, even though it’s kind of hard to educate students if you can’t protect them.”
But Carter said Eastern Michigan is not alone. It is common for universities to underreport crimes on campus, and reputation is part of the motivation, he said.
Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, agreed.
“You can’t just rely on university administrators to do the right thing,” she said. “I wish you could.”
Because “college administrators need a little incentive to be forthcoming,” Kirtley said it is vital for the Clery Act to exist. Many students and parents depend solely on administrators for information regarding safety on campus, she said.
“Accurate information is a very powerful tool,” Kirtley said.
Also, the Clery Act serves to quell rumor and speculation, she added.
Kirtley concluded by calling Dickinson’s death a “tragic occurrence, which would have been tragic enough” without the university’s apparent cover-up.