The end of November and the beginning of December is normally a time for high emotions for college football fans. Winning or losing those last regular season games has us on the edge of our seats. Will your team be in the bowl? Will they make it into the national championship?
This fall, however, collegiate sports enthusiasts have been experience emotions of a different kind. What did they know? When did they know it? And perhaps the keenest question: has it happened on my campus? Kansas City author Linda Rodriguez has been thinking about these questions. They make her mad, and she has something to say about it.
It’s Not Your Mickey Rooney-Ronnie Reagan Campus Anymore
I’m particularly interested in the Penn State case of alleged child sexual abuse for two reasons. For many years, I ran a university women’s center (and know a thing or three about bringing sexual discrimination/harassment/assault grievances/charges in that environment). I also currently write a series of mysteries with a campus police chief as a protagonist, trying to solve crimes while battling the resistance of her university’s top administrators. I know (in a generic way) something of what’s behind this sickening situation.
To begin with, even on campuses where the teams have names like the Fireflies or the Inchworms and routinely wind up on the bottom of the Small Seven Division, the highest paid person will be the athletic director—higher paid than star professors or, even, the chancellor. Disciplining an employee becomes difficult when he (almost always the athletic director is a “he”) makes so much more than you do.
Still, university administrators, even when sports figures are not involved, 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 Department of Education is currently investigating two football-related incidents, the child-sexual-assault nightmare at Penn State and sexual assault charges against five football players at Marquette University. In each case, the sports program kept the allegations in-house and tried to protect their own. In each case, the charges eventually made it up the chain of command in the university and were further obstructed. In Marquette’s case, it was several months’ delay, causing the police to say that the delay had made prosecution impossible. In Penn State’s, of course, the delay was years, and it allowed many more young boys to be victimized. For this reason, Penn State may well become the first university to have its federal financial aid pulled.
Some writers looking at the Penn State nightmare, such as Nina Bernstein writing for the New York Times and Kayla Webley for TIME. have come out against campus police forces. But 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 1980's 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. The Penn State scandal has brought a momentary spotlight to this situation, as well as the dangers of giving too much adulation and power to athletic programs. 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.
Every Last Secret, Linda Rodriguez's first novel in her series about Skeet Bannion, a half-Cherokee campus police chief, won the Malice Domestic First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition and will be published April 23rd, 2012, by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books. She is currently finishing the second book in the series. You can find out more about Linda and her work at her site, Linda Rodriguez Writes, you can follow her on Twitter, or friend her on Facebook.