By Linda Rodriguez
One of my social media followers is involved with the website Online Colleges. This is not as strange as it sounds because my mystery series—Every Last Secret, Every Broken Trust, Every Hidden Fear, and Every Family Doubt (currently in progress)—is set on a college campus with a campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, as the protagonist. Anyway, this follower wanted to alert me to their post, “The 10 Most Shocking College Crimes of All Time.” She thought, rightly, that I’d be interested. You can find it here.
The crew at Online Colleges has done a good job in sorting through the crimes on college campuses, but I’m not sure I agree with all their selections. I think there are a couple of more shocking crimes that I’d substitute for some on their list. You’ll find these shocking enough, though, I’m sure.
One place where they really went right was in including Ted Bundy on the list, even though the bulk of his crimes took place off-campus. Most of Bundy’s killings were never included in any campus crime report because they didn’t happen on campus, but he cruised campuses to pick out his victims and make contact with them. Bundy, like other sexual predators, looked on campuses the way a weasel might look on a hen house, as a convenient larder happily stocked with his favorite prey.
This is a problem that haunts the nightmares of campus police and others responsible for controlling crime on campus—the concentration of nubile young people of all genders, newly independent of parental control and anxious to assert that independence in every way they can. It too often leads to heavy drinking, date rape, and more violent forms of sexual assault among students. It also makes easy pickings for sexual predators.
Campuses have to walk a fine line between going overboard with warnings to the point that students no longer listen—if they ever did in the first place—and being so laissez-faire that students are unaware of any dangers. And ultimately, when students leave the campus, the campus police can no longer protect them. They have no jurisdiction off campus.
With the exception of a few episodes that hit the media big-time, such as the Sandusky affair at Penn State or the Virginia Tech shootings, most people are unaware of crime on college campuses, but it’s been going on for a long time and is only likely to continue. Especially the campus crimes that don’t happen on campus itself but started there, like Bundy’s.
University administrators are notoriously averse to making public any wrongdoing on their campuses. They compete for students and know that, given the choice between a safe campus and one where students are victims of violence, the student and her/his parents will almost always make the choice of safety.
Because of this tendency, Congress—they do occasionally do something sensible—passed a law in 1990 called the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act requiring all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their campuses. Every year, each campus must make available a detailed report on campus safety and crime to students, parents, the media, and the general public. (If you’re looking at colleges for your kids, this report for each school should be your starting place.)
The Clery Act came about after Jeanne Clery, a nineteen-year-old freshman at Lehigh University, was raped, sodomized, tortured, and killed by a male student she had never met in her dorm room on a campus that had kept secret 38 violent crimes occurring in the three years before her murder. Because of the work of her grief-stricken parents and others, the Clery Act requires all universities and colleges to report all crimes that take place on their campuses, even if the cases do not go to prosecution.
For this reason, some colleges will show more crime in their reports than the FBI will in their report for that campus. (Hint to parents—that’s usually a good sign of a campus that takes the Clery Act seriously and has infrastructure in place to deal with crime and to provide support for victims.) If the Department of Education, which administers the Clery Act, finds that a campus is not complying with the requirements of the Act, it can fine the campus or—the ultimate punishment, never yet used—pull all that university’s federal financial aid. In 2008, Eastern Michigan University was fined the largest amount ever, $357,500, for failing to warn the campus community about a rapist/murderer on the loose and for failing to report (even to her parents) the rape and murder in her dorm room of student, Laura Dickinson, in 2004.
The growth of independent campus police forces, whose officers have all gone to police academy and are commissioned police officers (often recruited from municipal police forces), is a major reason crime has been going down on campuses which have taken the Clery Act seriously. As an example, according to Security on Campus, the watchdog nonprofit founded by Jeanne Clery’s parents, a campus crime awareness program established in the late 1980s by the University of Washington Police Department reduced violent crime by more than 50% on that campus by 1990.
Chancellors/presidents and other top administrators of universities can put heavy pressure on campus police chiefs, of course—just as mayors/city managers and city council members can do with their police chiefs in cities and towns all over the country. Along the way, some cave in to that pressure in cities and on campuses, but if you examine records of cases that have reaped Clery Act fines in the past, you usually find that administrators have gone out of their way to keep the campus police in the dark like everyone else.
Most folks are unaware that there are thousands of assaults and other crimes, including murders, every year on college campuses, which may be as large as small cities. Every year or two, some highly publicized event brings a momentary spotlight to this situation before fading away from public view. I hope that, once that spotlight has faded, people won’t forget the need to inform themselves about campus crime stats and policies and to hold university administrators accountable for reporting crimes and making campuses safer for all those who live, work, or visit there.
What do you think? Are campuses too lax? Or do they go overboard with the warnings? Is there ultimately any way in a free society to protect students, faculty, and staff against the kinds of crimes in the "10 Most Shocking College Crimes" list—the sexual predators and the arbitrary shooters of many?