March 20, 2008

SUNSHSINE WEEK: Campus Crime

Campus Crime Information Vital in Keeping Students Safe


By Adam Goldstein

Universities receiving federal funding are presented with a fine line to walk when it comes to opening and providing their records. On the one hand, colleges have a mandate to protect student privacy; on the other hand, campus crime information must be made available to the student body. There is little room for error between these two obligations, because both are designed to protect the safety of students.

The obligation to disclose crime information was imposed to correct a tragic error of omission.

On April 5, 1986, Jeanne Clery was raped and murdered by a fellow student. Jeanne, a 19-year-old freshman at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, had her throat cut with a broken beer bottle and was strangled to death by an attacker who passed through three unlocked, propped-open doors to reach her.

Each of those doors could have been, and should have been, locked. But Jeanne, like many students at Lehigh, did not know that there had been reports of violent crime on the campus; they did not know that there were simple steps they could take to protect themselves.

It was with this in mind that the Campus Security Act, later renamed in honor of Jeanne Clery, was signed into law in 1990. The Clery Act requires all colleges receiving federal funds to maintain open daily crime logs, report annual crime statistics, and provide a "timely warning" to the campus when crimes present a serious or continuing threat to students and employees.

It is sad that the need to share campus crime information came at the cost of a young woman’s life. It is sadder still that some universities two decades later still had not learned from that tragedy.

On Dec. 15, 2006, Laura Dickinson’s body was found in her dorm room at Eastern Michigan University, where she had died four days earlier. The next day, the university issued a press release to the community informing students about the death and stating that there was "no reason to suspect foul play."

Ten weeks later, a suspect — a fellow student — was arrested and charged with homicide and criminal sexual misconduct in the death of Laura Dickinson. It was revealed that, at the time the press release was issued suggesting nothing violent about Laura's death, the University knew her body had been found naked with a pillowcase over her head.

In July 2007, the Department of Education found that Eastern Michigan University had failed to adhere to the provisions of the Clery Act. In fact, the report found — among other things — that in 2003, 2004 and 2005, the university had failed to properly disclose crime statistics, and the crime log had also been improperly maintained, in that Laura's death was not listed as a homicide within 48 hours of that information being known to the school.

"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 Department of Education report said.

The failure to correctly report crime statistics in prior years is especially sad, as it was the hope among those who championed the Clery Act that this information might have led Jeanne to take more precautions.

Had it been correct at Eastern Michigan, it might have led Laura to take more precautions, too.

The trial for the suspect in Laura Dickinson's death is ongoing, and Eastern Michigan University has been fined for its violation. The university has acknowledged its failure to maintain the provisions of the Clery Act, though it is appealing the amount of the fine later levied: $357,000.

No fine will bring Laura back, just as no law could bring Jeanne back. But it was the federal law passed in the aftermath of Jeanne's murder that was supposed protect Laura. And what lesson can we learn from the events before and after Laura’s death?

What we know is that, on some campuses, they have not learned the bloody lessons from an April night over two decades ago. And what we do not know is how many bodies it will take for those lessons to sink in.

Incidents like the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University have brought a renewed focus on the importance of campus security officers sharing information honestly and quickly after a tragedy begins. But we must not forget that the obligation — both legal and moral — to protect college students begins long before the first bullet is fired. It begins before the murder, before the rape, before the burglary; it begins even before the first-year student arrives on campus.

The obligation to protect college students begins with giving students honest and accurate information about the crime on campus so that the student can protect himself or herself.

And the institution that plays a public relations game with that information is putting its image above the lives of its students.

Goldstein is attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.

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