In recent months, national outrage over violence on and around America’s college campuses has reached a fever pitch. Whether it’s gun control versus Second Amendment rights, the rights of the mentally ill versus the safety of the public or the culture’s treatment of women, violent episodes on college campuses have dominated the news.
Robin Hattersley Gray, editor of Campus Safety Magazine, said that though mass shootings are relatively rare, studies show that their incidence has risen in the past five years or so. Data from a recently released FBI study showed that between 2000 and 2008 there was an average of five incidents per year. The number of active shooting incidents increased to one per month between 2009 and 2012. Although figures came too late for the study, its authors confirmed that in 2013, shooting events occurred at approximately the same rate as the previous three years —15 per year.
Hattersley Gray said that other campus crimes include thefts and property damage. But she stressed that sexual assaults are by far the most common crimes on campuses. While legislative measures have sought to make college campuses more hospitable to women they’ve fallen short with regard to the sexual harassment and assaults of women students.
Enacted in 1972, Title IX changed federal funding laws to prohibit sex-based discrimination in education. While the law is most frequently associated with girls’ athletics, Title IX was meant to ensure equal access to every educational program or activity that receives federal funding. Government relations manager for the American Association of University Women Anne Hedgepeth said that the law has always addressed sexual violence, “since sexual violence clearly interferes with one’s education.”
In 1990, the Clery Act, then known as the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act, amended federal financial aid laws to require all participating postsecondary institutions to disclose campus crime statistics and security information. The Clery Act came about as a result of the work of the Clery Center, a nonprofit organization founded in 1987 by Connie and Howard Clery after their 19-year-old daughter, Jeanne, was raped and murdered by a fellow student in her Lehigh University dorm room.
Included in the Clery Act is the requirement that institutions provide timely warnings to campus communities when there are public safety risks on campus. The Clery Act also contains the Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.
In March, 2013 the Clery Act was expanded by the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act. The new act, part of the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act addresses all complaints of sexual violence including sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.
On May 1, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released the names of 55 colleges and universities being investigated for possible violations of Title IX over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.
In a news release on the OCR website, Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, was quoted saying, “We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights. We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue.”
Hattersley Gray noted that one of the greatest challenges colleges and universities face is dealing with potentially dangerous students. Although suspension or expulsion may seem like an appropriate solution, Hattersley Gray said the situation is far more complicated than it appears. Campuses need to understand their responsibilities, she said.
Among those responsibilities is the obligation for college officials to have a thorough understanding of The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). The act outlines the guidelines colleges and universities must follow with regard to the release of student records. While there is a great deal of misunderstanding about this, Hattersley Gray said FERPA does make exceptions to privacy rules when students are deemed to be threatening to themselves or others.
Schools are also encouraged to do regular follow-ups with suspended students and their parents, keep tabs on their locations and activities and to work closely with mental health providers and law enforcement to make sure the suspended or expelled student and others in the community are safe. Automated technology that now exists makes it easier for schools to maintain students’ records from a variety of sources in one digital location, and also helps to remind college staff members to follow up with students regularly.
See also, Silent No More