MICHIGAN – The U.S. Department of Education recommended lastweek that Eastern Michigan University pay the largest fine ever leveled againsta school for failing to properly report crimes on campus.
In a letter the university received Monday, the Education Departmentrecommended that the school be fined $27,500 – the maximum amount allowed- for each of 13 violations of the federal Jeanne Clery Act, adding up toa total fine of $357,500. The law requires all schools that take federal fundingto compile and report data about crimes that occur on campus. It also requiresthe schools to provide timely warnings to students and staff about crimes thatpose a potential threat to campus safety.
The Education Department launched its investigation of EMU after it wasdiscovered that the school had lied about the death of a student on campus.Laura Dickinson was found dead in her dorm room in December 2006. Althoughcampus and state police immediately suspected that she might have been killed- she was naked from the waist down and had a pillow over her head -the school’s press release said there was “no reason to suspect foul play.” Theschool did not reveal – even to Dickinson’s family – that policewere investigating her death as a homicide until 10 weeks later, after policearrested a suspect in her death, also an EMU student.
Security on Campus, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit group that promotes andmonitors schools’ compliance with the Clery Act, filed a complaint in March 2007asking the Education Department to investigate Eastern Michigan.
The most recent letter from the Education Department, signed by Mary E.Gust, director of the Administrative Actions and Appeals Division, reiteratedthe findings laid out in the department’s final report, released inNovember. Gust’s letter labeled EMU’s response to Dickinson’s death “anegregious violation” of the Clery Act and called its initial statement that foulplay was not suspected “reprehensible.” But the department’s criticism of EMUextended beyond Dickinson’s murder, with the report citing “very serious,numerous and repeated” Clery Act violations extending as far back as 2003.
Among the department’s findings were that EMU failed to establish a timelywarning policy and that, from 2003 through 2005, it failed to report accuratestatistics about sexual assaults and alcohol, drug and weapons violations. Somecrimes were misclassified – for example, forcible sex offenses reported asnon-forcible offenses – while other crime reports failed to include allthe required information, such as the location of the incident. The EducationDepartment report also found discrepancies between some of the data EMU providedto the department and the statistics it included in its annual report releasedto the public.
In a press release, EMU Provost and Executive Vice President Donald Loppnowdid not dispute the Education Department’s report and said its findings wereconsistent with the university’s own internal reviews. However, the school hasasked for a hearing to review the size of the fines. It must file any appeal byJan. 4.
“We expected this and we will accept the final outcome once we havecompleted the process,” Loppnow said. Loppnow has been serving as the universitypresident since the school’s Board of Regents fired former President JohnFallon, who was in office at the time of Dickinson’s death.
The setting of EMU’s fines brings the school a step closer to resolving allthe issues surrounding Dickinson’s death. Last week, the school and theDickinson family released a joint statement announcing that the school hadagreed to pay the family $2.5 million, although it did not admit any wrongdoing.A lawsuit filed by Fallon in October, alleging that EMU’s regents fired him toprevent him from revealing the board’s violations of Michigan’s Open MeetingsAct, still is pending in state court.
EMU’s press release highlighted recent improvements to campus safety,including increased police patrols, more video surveillance and the hiring of anoutside firm to conduct a security audit. The Education Department report alsonoted that EMU had improved its Clery Act compliance, but it said that theschool still was not fulfilling all its obligations and that the improvements ithas made “do not diminish the seriousness of the violations that existed at thetime of the review.”
S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, said thegroup hopes the record-setting fine against EMU will improve Clery Actcompliance nationwide.
“We believe the fine is appropriate, that it sends a strong signal to EMUand to other schools that Clery Act compliance must be taken seriously,” hesaid. Although EMU’s failure to report Dickinson’s death as a possible homicidewas “probably the single most egregious violation we’ve ever seen,” the othershortcomings cited by the Education Department were “not too terribly different”from common failures at other schools, Carter said.
“We’re making a point of talking about the underlying systemic and policyviolations [at EMU],” he said. “Because it’s those deficiencies that reallyallowed the most horrible parts of it to happen.”
According to Security on Campus, EMU is only the fourth school ever finedfor Clery Act violations, and only one fine – against Salem InternationalUniversity in West Virginia – reached into the six-figure range, at$200,000.
Carter said this history has allowed schools such as EMU to become lax incomplying with the law.
“There’s no pressure on them to comply,” Carter said. “And that’s what ledto the state of affairs that was found on [EMU’s] campus a year ago.”
But Carter said he expects more schools to face fines for Clery Actviolations in the future, noting that the Education Department in 2005 releasedits first comprehensive guide on how to comply with the law.
“The ignorance defense … isn’t going to fly anymore.”
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