The Department of Education has fined Virginia Tech for failing to comply with the Clery Act during the 2007 campus massacre there. The Department imposed the maximum fine of $27,500 for two violations of the Act, for a $55,000 total. The Department said a much higher fine was warranted, but not allowed by law.
According to the decision, Virginia Tech failed to provide timely warning of the shootings. It also didn't comply with the timely warning policy it had previously disclosed to students and staff.
Virginia Tech says it will appeal the decision.
At Yale University, a graduate student was found murdered in a medical school research building. At Johns Hopkins University, a student fought off a suspected burglar with a samurai sword. At Florida A&M University, a football player and two others were shot following the school's first home game of the season.
The headlines are grim reminders that colleges and universities aren't immune to serious crime. When considering colleges, it's important that students and parents not only look at academics and athletics. They should also look at school crime and safety.
Jeanne Clery Act Annual Crime Reports
In 1986, Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Clery was raped and murdered in her dormitory room by a student she didn't know. She and her parents were unaware that 38 violent crimes had been committed on the campus in the prior three years. After Jeanne's death, her parents pushed Congress to enact the Jeanne Clery Act, a law requiring schools to warn students about campus crimes.
The Clery Act requires each college and university to publish an annual report of crime statistics and school security policies. Under the Act, the US Dept. of Education collects crime statistics for more than 6,000 schools. Click here to find crime data for the colleges and universities in your state.
This crime data shows that in 2005, 28 murders were reported in colleges nationwide. In 2007, the number spiked to 64. Almost every other category of reported crime, including sex offenses and theft, held steady or decreased slightly during that time.
Emergency Warnings about Threats to Security
In 2007, a Virginia Tech student shot two other students in a dormitory. The school didn't issue a campus warning until two hours later. Minutes after the warning, the student shot another 30 people before killing himself. A study of the incident concluded the school was too slow in issuing the warning after the initial shooting.
In response to the Virginia Tech shootings, Congress amended the Clery Act to require colleges and universities to immediately notify their campus community of any significant emergency or safety threat. A warning isn't required if it would interfere with efforts to contain the threat. Colleges now have systems in place to issue emergency warnings through telephones, cell phones, text messages, emails, web sites and other forms of communication.
Campus Safety Tips
Information and awareness about campus crime helps schools and students make better safety decisions. The national non-profit organization Security on Campus, Inc. offers these additional tips for staying safe on campus:
- Know your surroundings and trust your instincts.
- Keep campus safety phone numbers in your cell for emergencies.
- Lock your door. Don’t loan your key to friends.
- Don’t accept drinks (alcoholic or otherwise) from others. Remember that alcohol is the #1 date-rape drug.
- When you go out, let someone know where you're going and when you plan to be back.
- Don’t prop doors.
- Be careful about posting personal information on Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites.
An enclosed campus environment can provide a false sense of security. Unfortunately, colleges aren't safe havens immune from real world crimes. It's important for administrators and students to remain alert about personal safety.
Questions for Your Attorney
- How is the Clery Act enforced? What happens if a school under-reports crime?
- Can a college be sued if it fails to immediately alert students about a safety threat?
- Can a college be liable when a student is injured in a crime on campus?