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VOL. 122 | NO. 76 | Thursday, April 26, 2007

Universities Weigh Legal Responsibilities in Light Of Virginia Tech Tragedy

By Amy O. Williams

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BUSTED: An officer writes a parking ticket early Wednesday morning on the campus of the UT Health Science Center as campuses around Memphis and across the nation continue reeling from last week's shootings at Virginia Tech. -- Photo By Amy O. Williams

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of stories examining the Virginia Tech killing spree and its effects in Memphis.

In the wake of the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech University last week, colleges and universities across the country are evaluating their campus safety plans.

The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., for example, broke tradition earlier this week by announcing that locks would be placed on students' barracks for the first time in the 165-year-old military college's history.

Institutions of higher learning, including those in Memphis, already have begun looking at plans for notifying students and faculty if a crime is committed on or near campus.

"From what I am hearing, all universities, not just ours and not just my department, but university-wide (departments) are looking at policies and procedures and reviewing everything," said Derek Myers, deputy director of campus safety at the University of Memphis.

The Virginia Tech tragedy occurred April 16 when 33 people - including shooter Seung-Hui Cho, who killed himself - were killed and 29 injured in two separate attacks about two hours apart that morning. The incident was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Some have questioned why Virginia Tech officials did not report the first incident to students - the shooting of two students at West Ambler Johnston Hall, a coed dormitory, at around 7:15 a.m., about two hours before the later attack.

Full disclosure

All colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs are required to disclose and record information about crimes on and near their campuses by the Clery Act, a federal law enacted in 1990.

The Clery Act is named after Jeanne Ann Clery, a 19-year-old student at LeHigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., who was raped and murdered in 1986 while she slept in her campus residence hall.

Clery's parents, Connie and Howard, discovered the university's students had not been told about 38 violent crimes that had occurred on the Lehigh campus in the three years before her murder. They worked with other campus crime victims to persuade Congress to enact the law, originally known as the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990.

The U.S. Department of Education enforces schools' compliance with the law and can fine them up to almost $28,000 per noncompliance offense. Since the law is linked to colleges and universities that participate in federal student financial aid programs, it applies to most institutions of higher education, both public and private.

In compliance

Myers said the U of M complies with the Clery Act by keeping a log of all crimes to which the campus police respond. The log is available in the department's on-campus office.

"If something is going to make the school look bad, they don't want the community to know about it. The sad result of that is it, in effect, puts public relations above public safety. I don't think schools consciously make that choice, but I think that is the result."
- Mark Goodman
Executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.

The log contains the time crimes were reported, the time they occurred, the type of crimes and incident report numbers.

The department also submits a report to the U.S. Department of Education that Myers said also is posted on the campus police department's Web site, bf.memphis.edu/police/.

Because of its size, Rhodes College is a little different than other larger universities, said John Blaisdell, director of campus safety at the private institution.

"We do everything we can possibly do to comply with the Clery Act, including timely warnings in the event that something occurs on campus or could impact our students directly," Blaisdell said.

His department communicates those warnings through e-mail. Since Rhodes has about 1,700 students, the school's size allows warnings to be distributed more easily through fliers and phone calls.

"The scale of our college is such that right now, we don't require any extraordinary electronic measures, because our size is not on the same scale of a U of M or a Virginia Tech or something of that nature," Blaisdell said.

That same protocol applies to Christian Brothers University (CBU), said campus safety director Mark Kimbell. Like the U of M, CBU employs sworn police officers along with security guards in its campus safety department.

The school is one of only two private universities in Tennessee that do; the other is Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

The bad PR angle

And though campus safety directors at the colleges and universities in Memphis do their best to comply with the Clery Act, some student newspaper editors and reporters said they are not always getting all the campus crime information as quickly as they should, said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. Goodman also is an attorney and has given lectures around the country about the Clery Act.

Goodman said he feels confident that schools are failing to release some information that the community has a legitimate interest in knowing, he said.

"I don't think that is even speculation," he said. "But, as to their motivation, I believe it ultimately boils down to schools being more concerned about their image than they are about being truthful and forthcoming.

"If something is going to make the school look bad, they don't want the community to know about it. The sad result of that is it, in effect, puts public relations above public safety. I don't think schools consciously make that choice, but I think that is the result."

Goodman said he hopes the Virginia Tech shootings could spark some changes in how colleges and universities disclose information.

"One of the things I am wondering is if maybe this incident, as tragic as it is, might not help be an impetus for requiring schools to be more forthcoming," he said.

Doing the best job possible

Some people, like University of Memphis associate professor of journalism Candy Justice, said they believe more is needed than just getting the word out. Getting it out in a timely manner could save lives if a crime occurs on or near a college campus.

As general manager and faculty adviser of the U of M's student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, Justice said she believes getting the word out quickly is essential when a crime has occurred.

While she knows it is not possible to protect students from everything, Justice said colleges and universities should do the best they can.

"That is what the Clery Act is all about and that is why we in newspapers and student newspapers have to put in complaints when we don't get reports - we have to look out for the best interest of students," she said.

In the interest of public safety, the information should be released as soon as possible, Justice said. Over the 15 years she has been advising the student newspaper, she said she and the Helmsman staff have encountered problems in getting information from the campus police department.

There have been times when a large portion of information was blacked out on an incident report or the campus police were slow to release information after a violent crime had occurred on campus.

"I think there is going to be a movement among universities all over the country and even all over the world to come up with a plan for notifying students, and that is a good thing," she said. "I am sorry it took a tragedy to bring it about, but yes, I think there is going to be more vigilance for sure."

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