U.S. House passes bill to require colleges to release more safety information

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. House of Representatives onThursday passed a bill that would require colleges and universities to releasemore campus safety information and issue public warnings within 30 minutes of athreat or emergency.

The College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 is a reauthorizationof the Higher Education Act, a law that sets the conditions schools must meet inorder to get federal funds. The several hundred-page bill, H.R. 4137, containsa number of sections that address campus safety, including amendments to thefederal Jeanne Clery Act. That law requires colleges and universities receivingfederal funds to report certain crime statistics annually and make them publiclyavailable. Schools also must issue “timely warnings” in the eventof an emergency or a threat to the campus community.

The House bill passed 354-58. If signed into law, it would add four new criminal offensesthat colleges must include in their annual statistics: intimidation;larceny-theft; destruction, damage or vandalism of property; and simple assault.

The bill also specifies that schools must notify their communities ofthreats to the health and safety of students and faculty within 30 minutes. This is in contrast to the Clery Act’s current language, which merelystates that a notice must be “timely” but does not set a specifictime limit.

This legislation comes in the wake of campus crimes such as the April 2007shooting at Virginia Tech, in which student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32students and faculty. Cho killed two students in a dorm at about 7:15 a.m., butthe campus was not notified of the incident until only minutes beforeCho’s second shooting spree — in which he shot and killed 30 morepeople — began at 9:45 a.m.

The House bill’s primary sponsor is Rep. George Miller, (D-Calif.),chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor.

On Feb. 5, family members of Virginia Tech victims, in conjunction withSecurity On Campus, an advocacy group for campus safety, sent a letter to Millerand Rep. Howard McKeon, the committee’s ranking Republican. In theletter, they said the provision to require schools to release a notice ofemergency within 30 minutes would “serve as a living memorial to ourchildren.” The letter also urged Miller and McKeon to stand in “strong opposition” to any attempt to weaken this rule.

The bill’s amendments to the Clery Act would require colleges todevelop policies outlining emergency response and evacuation procedures, whichcould include electronic and cellular communications as methods to notify thecampus.

Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security On Campus, said theproposed bill would require colleges to test these emergency response proceduresonce per year.

In addition, the bill would require that universities publish annual firesafety reports, similar to the current reports on crimes that occur on or nearcampus. Required statistics would include information such as the number offires that occurred on campus, what caused them, and the number of fire-relateddeaths that have occurred a given institution.

“The good news for the student press is that it increases the releaseof information that is newsworthy because it is about safety,” said AdamGoldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center.

The bill mandates that the Department of Education clarify its guidelineson the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 to specify whencollege and university officials may share information about students whodemonstrate a significant risk to themselves or to others on campus.

After the incident at Virginia Tech, it came to light that Cho wasdiagnosed with severe depression and anxiety disorder. Cho had a history ofexhibiting potentially threatening behavior in the classroom and his academicwritings.

The White House Wednesday released a statement opposing several portions ofthe bill, but not any of the safety-related provisions.

The bill now moves to the Senate to be debated.