Congress might mandate more campus crime data

Academia represents a special subset of society where, for a short time, collegians are allowed to flourish in knowledge, free expression and self-discovery, relatively free from “real world” worries and stresses. The idealistic promises of college, however, have been marred in recent years with spurts of violence.The past year was filled with high-profile cases of campus violence and the deaths of college students. From the infamous shootings at Virginia Tech in April 2007 to the recent murder of the University of North Carolina’s student body president in March, the emphasis on recognizing and finding ways to increase student safety has never been higher.Sensational events like these often serve as catalysts for policy changes at the federal, state, and individual college and university level. In 1986, the body of Jeanne Clery was found in her dorm room after she had been raped and murdered. In the wake of her death it was discovered that there had been 38 other violent crimes on or near campus within the previous three years.Later, Clery’s parents created Security On Campus Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for security at college campuses.”Our daughter died because of what she didn’t know,” Clery’s parents wrote in a piece on the group’s Web site.Security On Campus successfully lobbied for additional disclosure requirements for campus crime information. In 1990 President George H. W. Bush signed the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act, which mandated that colleges and universities disclose crime statistics and other campus security information. The law has been amended twice, and was renamed the Jeanne Clery Act in 1998 in honor of the slain teen.The Clery Act might soon be amended again with legislation currently moving through Congress. The College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 contains provisions that would require schools to issue warnings to those on campus within 30 minutes of discovering a threat. The bill also adds four crimes to the list of those that schools must report statistically and requires colleges to begin reporting statistics on fire safety.The Clery Act, which applies to practically all colleges and universities, has been an important tool for campus safety and access to information. Two recent events, the shootings at Northern Illinois University and a Department of Education fine levied against Eastern Michigan University, highlight how critical the dissemination of crime information at college campuses can be.Worst fears realized againIn the months following the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech there were several studies, commissions and recommendations for changing policies to help prevent or mitigate future school shootings.One such panel in Virginia, commissioned by Gov. Tim Kaine, documented the administrative and communication breakdowns that occurred at Virginia Tech. Among the report’s findings was that the university was too slow to issue a warning about the initial shooting that occurred on campus.Seung-Hui Cho shot two students at 7:15 a.m. in West Ambler Johnston dormitory, but the administration did not warn the campus about the shooting until more than two hours later, at 9:26 a.m. The warning was issued only minutes before Cho began a second series of shootings that killed an additional 30 people before Cho killed himself.The language of the Clery Act orders that institutions of higher education issue a “timely” warning about crimes considered a threat to students or employees on campus. But under current law, the definition of timely is murky.Daniel Carter, vice president of Security on Campus, said most schools did some form of self-assessment of their emergency response procedures in the aftermath of Virginia Tech shootings and that this was crucial in the response to the recent shooting at Northern Illinois University.On Feb. 14 Steven Kazmierczak, a former NIU graduate student, walked into a large lecture hall and opened fire upon students, killing five and wounding 21 before killing himself. Kazmierczak began shooting shortly after 3 p.m.; 20 minutes later, the campus was alerted in several ways, including via the campus Web site, e-mail, voice mail and a public address system.Melanie Magara, assistant vice president for public affairs at Northern Illinois University, said the university was already focused on its emergency response, but continued to reevaluate polices after the Virginia Tech shootings.”We literally went line by line of the Virginia Tech report,” Magara said. Magara explained that the university formed committees and generated a dialogue among the campus community to develop its emergency response plans to alert campus.”I don’t know of any of my colleagues from other universities that did not see Virginia Tech as a huge wake up call,” Magara said.Carter said the changes NIU implemented in response to the Virginia Tech shootings ultimately meant saving more lives.”Issuing a warning within 20 minutes, that goes far beyond [the requirements] for the Clery Act,” Carter said.Lessons not learnedIn contrast to NIU’s meeting and exceeding Clery Act requirements, a Department of Education investigation found that Eastern Michigan University fell far short of its Clery Act obligations.In a December 2007 letter, the department informed the school it was being fined $357,500 ‘ the largest amount ever fined under the Clery Act ‘ for 13 violations, including failing to issue a timely warning after the on-campus death of an EMU student.The Department of Education conducted an investigation of Eastern Michigan in April 2007 in response to the death of 22-year-old Laura Dickinson, who in December 2006 was discovered dead in her dorm room, naked from the waist down with a pillow over her head. The university’s subsequent press release informed the campus there was “no reason to suspect foul play” and Dickinson’s family was informed that she died of natural causes.Nearly 10 weeks later, on Feb. 23, another Eastern Michigan University student, Orange Taylor III, was arrested and charged with her murder. Taylor’s second trial for the rape and murder of Dickinson resulted in a jury finding him guilty on April 7; Taylor’s first trial resulted in a hung jury. He was scheduled to be sentenced May 7.Among the violations cited by the DOE were the failure to provide a timely warning in the death of Dickinson, lack of oversight and structure to comply with the Clery Act, and failure to properly disclose crime statistics.”EMU’s response to the student’s death was an egregious violation of the regulations and of its responsibility to its students, employees, parents and the public,” the DOE letter stated.The Department of Education issued the maximum fine, $27,500, for each violation, for a total of $357,500.Carter said part of the problem is that enforcement of the Clery Act has been spotty. Despite the law’s existence for nearly 20 years, only one school had paid a significant fine for a violation of the act before Eastern Michigan University.”There is no real pressure [to comply], the odds of getting caught are so low,” Carter said.Carter also said the death of Dickinson is strikingly similar to the death of another college student: Jeanne Clery.”That’s what’s stressing the Clerys, that you could have incidents like this nearly 20 years later and nearly no notice to students that it happened,” Carter said.Eastern Michigan University has requested a hearing with Department of Education to “discuss its concerns regarding the fine action with the appropriate U.S. Department of Education (DOE) officials.” Kenneth McKanders, general counsel for Eastern Michigan University, said he did not want discuss what those concerns were until a hearing date is set.Some speculate that EMU could be requesting the fines be reduced, but Carter said that would be a mistake.”They’ve made changes, and we respect that,” Carter said. “That doesn’t excuse the severity of their actions. Their only defense would be ‘we didn’t do anything wrong’, but the fact is they did do these things.”Calling for changeWith campus safety remaining an important topic in the public consciousness, it is no surprise that some are calling for updates on current laws.The U.S. House of Representatives passed the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007, a hodgepodge of provisions related to higher education. The bill would amend portions of the Clery Act, widening the information that colleges would need to record and disclose, and clarifying what is considered a timely warning in the event of a threat to a college campus.Under the Clery Act colleges and universities are required to maintain statistics on 11 specified crimes that occur on or near campus. The new bill would add four new offenses to that list.The bill’s most noteworthy provision would require colleges to take no more than 30 minutes to release a warning to students and faculty in the event of a threat on campus. Supporters of this provision cite the slow warnings issued at Virginia Tech and EMU. Proponents of this bill, such as Security On Campus, say the current law is unclear about what is considered timely.But some groups, such as the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, say the provision would not have its intended effect and would make campuses less safe in the event of an emergency.”Every one of these situations is unique and they evolve over time, such as the Virginia Tech shooting did,” said Christopher Blake, associate director for IACLEA.Blake said that creating a 30-minute time limit for administrators to issue a warning to a campus could open the door for abuse of the system. An IACLEA policy statement gives examples of false threats made by telephone that would require issuing a campus warning even though many ultimately are not genuine threats.”We are concerned that this [30-minute time limit] is just an arbitrary number instead of relying on the judgment of trained professionals,” Blake said.The House version of the bill, H.R. 4137, passed through that chamber Feb. 7, was sent to the Senate and is currently in the Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee.Another version of the bill, S. 1642, originated in the Senate but has been stalled in committee since July 2007. Unlike H.R. 4137, it does not have the 30-minute mandate or add to the list of reportable crimes. Both the House and Senate bills would order schools to begin recording statistical information on fire safety similar to the crime statistics currently required by the Clery Act.Compliance and confusionIn 2005, Kevin T. Colaner, associate vice president for Student Services at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, conducted a study on the Clery Act as part of his dissertation. Colaner surveyed 14,000 higher education professionals, all members of professional organizations such as the American College Personnel Association and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. The 53-item survey asked participants questions related to campus safety and knowledge of the Clery Act.Colaner found that of the 1,347 usable survey respondents, 16.2% reported they were not aware of the Clery Act.Colaner wrote it was “disconcerting that over sixteen percent of this sample was completely unaware” of the Clery Act. Colaner also wrote “the level of awareness of those who responded affirmatively is even more alarming.”Of those respondents who said they were aware of the Clery Act, 7.9 percent said they were not aware of the details and 43.5 percent said they were only “somewhat familiar” with the law.Colaner wrote that while awareness of the law was very high, the familiarity and depth of knowledge about the Clery Act was “very limited.”The Student Press Law Center periodically conducts open records requests of public agencies, often during Sunshine Week, an initiative designed to highlight open government issues. One test conducted recently sought information mandated under the Clery Act. SPLC contacted 21 colleges and universities in seven states and requested (in addition to information not required under the Clery Act), a copy of the crime statistics and crime log that the Act requires.The SPLC found that most officials were knowledgeable about the Clery Act. Often administrators would readily provide records themselves or the means of getting access to the school’s crime statistics (frequently found on college Web sites). Occasionally, however, it took some explaining to receive a copy of the crime log, mainly because administrators did not immediately identify this information as being associated with the Clery Act. Ultimately, SPLC did get of both types of information from all but two of the institutions surveyed.One issue raised by opponents of the Clery Act amendments illuminates a critical factor in Clery compliance: federal education and assistance on how to comply with the act.”Our experience with the Department of Education in other Clery Act related guidance leads us to believe that the Department will not be timely or responsive to clarifying this provision. It took nearly 16 years for the Department to publish a handbook for compliance for the Clery Act,” according to an IACLEA policy statement opposing the new timely warning requirement.But Carter, of Security On Campus, noted that such guidance has been available since 2005. Carter said that even citing that as a reason for non-compliance does not hold up with incidents like EMU.”They had a year and half to get their ship in shape,” he said.Carter said the final actions by the DOE against EMU will send an important signal to schools that do not take the Clery Act seriously.Clery’s impactStudent journalism is in a prime position to specialize in reporting newsworthy information: crime on campus that affects student safety.A great example of this happened in April at Southern Methodist University, where two students ‘ using Clery Act data ‘ wrote an article for The Daily Campus documenting an increase in the number of rapes on campus from three in 2005 to 13 in 2006.Erin Eidenshink, one of the students, said she discovered the information as part of a class on investigative journalism. The Clery Act is essential for accurate reporting on crime information, she said.”It is one of the only laws that sets guidelines about crime statistics. Any changes that would allow for more information or more timely information is a good thing.”