By: DEBRA GERSH HERNANDEZ
CONGRESS HAS PUT the Department of Education on notice that it had better start enforcing the law requiring universities to disclose statistics on campus crime.
To remedy the problem of college and university officials who either don’t release information in a timely fashion, or who don’t report statistics accurately, the House of Representatives passed a resolution urging the Department of Education to “play a more active role in monitoring and enforcing compliance” with the Campus Awareness and Security Act of 1990.
During a Capitol Hill press conference, members of Congress indicated they would introduce legislation next year to open campus police records.
The House resolution directs the Department of Education to “get its act together” when it comes to enforcing campus security and the Campus Security Act, explained Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Postsecondary Education Subcommittee.
“It is very disheartening to all of us . . . when we hear about instances of incomplete and inaccurate reports with respect to the reporting of crime statistics, and then we hear that the Department of Education doesn’t consider the matter a priority,” he said.
Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee and sponsor of the resolution, said that if the resolution doesn’t spur education officials to enforce the law, “of course, we will pass some different legislation that will make a lot of college officials unhappy.”
Legislation to open campus security and police logs was introduced last year by Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.). Although the Open Campus Police Logs Act, H.R. 2416, failed to reach the floor, Duncan said he would address the issue again next year.
“There is a major problem with crime on many of our nation’s largest colleges and universities, but very few people ? not enough people ? are aware of it,” Duncan commented. “We need to shine a light on that problem.”
David A. Longanecker, assistant secretary for postsecondary education, said the Department of Education has “no problem with” the resolution, whose language “is consistent with the priority we’ve placed on this.”
While the department is “finding institutions that are out of compliance,” Longanecker said that if violations appear “unintentional, not terribly flagrant, we’re working with them to bring them into compliance.”
Flagrant violations, he warned, are greeted with “a more punitive approach,” he added during a telephone interview with E&P.
“Our sense was that initially, when this law was passed, the colleges and universities were pretty negative,” he said. “Over the past few years, we’ve seen a sea of change.
“At first, they thought it was an unreasonable federal intrusion. Now, they see it as a legitimate public interest,” he said. Now campus officials are “more interested in learning how to comply.”
He said officials found at least 31 examples of noncompliance, most not serious.
The case of Moorhead State “suggests pretty substantial noncompliance,” and an exception, Longanecker said. A former student complained, and the school became the first flagged by federal officials for noncompliance. As this story was prepared, the university was into a 30-day period in which to reply to the findings.
If the department finds flagrant violation, it will make a judgment on penalties. In most cases, education officials work with universities to bring them into compliance,” Longanecker said.
Penalties can range from fines to elimination from federal student aid programs, though Longanecker said officials are hesitant to cut aid because it hurts students.
Reviews of the statistics are conducted during the department’s regular campus oversight activities, making sure there is a report, that it covers all aspects of the law and that it is available to the community.
Education officials “don’t regularly look to determine whether the information is accurate,” Longanecker said, because it is too hard to do.
Generally, colleges are accused of under-reporting campus crime. Only when there is evidence of under-reporting are statistics checked, Longanecker said.
The department “might” support legislation to open campus security logs, although in testimony before a House subcommittee earlier this year, Longanecker outlined several problems with H.R. 2416.
He cited concerns about victims’ privacy, that crime reports might divulge their identity and that investigations could be identified. He said the current law, which requires campus officials to warn students of imminent danger, “does a reasonable job.”
Conceding that opening campus security logs would be helpful in double-checking official crime statistics, Longanecker termed the conflict a “difficult conundrum.”
“The dilemma is, whether crimes actually become reported,” he said. “If there’s a formal arrest, it’s already in the public domain. We’re talking about alleged crimes, which we want included in the reports.”
While reporting statistics is one way to deal with campus crime, the next is making capital improvements and teaching people to protect themselves.
Longanecker said the department has “only been aggressively in a compliance mode for about a year” and suggested colleges need time to comply with the regulations.
“We’re still finding a small share who are out of compliance, and a smaller share of those who are flagrant,” he said. “I do not mean there is no problem, but it may be a problem of reporting.”
A logical place for further discussion could be hearings on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Longanecker said. Education Secretary Richard Riley and others have suggested reexamining the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects academic records and which has been used to justify withholding crime records.
Problems with access to campus police records are a major concern of college journalists and ranks second only to censorship in calls to the Student Press Law Center, according to executive director Mark Goodman.
“We hear from 100 different college newspapers in the course of the year who are specifically having [trouble with] access to campus crime information ? and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
Calls only reflect the number of student journalists who want to take the next step, Goodman pointed out. “But when I talk informally to college newspaper editors around the country, or if I’m at a conference, about [whether] your school is accurately reporting crime statistics, I don’t find anybody who says, yes, they are.
“Everyone believes they are under-reporting certain categories of crime, but in many cases, they don’t have the ability to prove that,” he said.
Goodman said it will take laws and lawsuits to open campus police logs in accordance with the Campus Security Act.
A lawsuit seeking access to campus police records at Miami University of Ohio was filed by former Miami Student editor Jennifer Markiewicz, who has since graduated.
The problem with the law requiring disclosure of campus crime statistics is that nobody knows whether they’re accurate, Goodman explained. With open police logs, it’s easier to determine when a department is in violation.
Goodman agreed with House critics that the Department of Education, the authority for enforcing the Campus Security Act, “has shirked its responsibility. In fact, over the course of the last six years, the Department of Education has consistently sided against those who seek access to campus crime information.”
Urging Congress to go even further is the Society of Professional Journalists, which is calling for opening campus judicial proceedings to the public, as well.
“We think that there is no difference between a crime on campus and a crime off campus. Crime is crime, and it should be treated the same way on campus as a crime off campus,” said SPJ President Steve Geimann, senior editor at Communications Daily in Washington, D.C.
“There have been too many instances where reporters trying to cover a story on campus can’t get information that any other journalist would have access to,” he added. “That’s not right, and it’s not fair, and it also jeopardizes people in the campus community.”
SPJ has established a task force to promote the issue, Geimann explained, saying professional journalists should lead the fight to uncover what’s happening on campus.
“When we encounter anybody who in the slightest is trying to conceal a record, close a meeting or prevent public scrutiny of a public action,” he said, “we scream loudly, we file lawsuits, we protest, we write about it.”
But campus crime information is more than a journalism issue, he said. It’s a public safety issue.
The public wouldn’t tolerate Washington, D.C., or Chicago police denying access to the basic records of what their officers did every day, Geimann said. Nor should the public stand for it when it happens on campus.