Thursday, December 1, 2011

It's Not Your Mickey Rooney Campus Anymore - Linda Rodriguez looks at college crime cover-ups

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.


  1. Not a criticism at all, but Marquette does not have a football team. At least one of the incidents, involving 4 athletes, involved the basketball team. Because I am very closely attached to this particular crime, I want people to know the truth, especially someone trying to help this messed up system!

  2. Wow Linda,
    I am SO GLAD you blogged with us today. I've been following the Penn State issue from afar, not really understanding all the intricacies, even though I've read a bit.

    I especially appreciate the depth of background you provided - and learning about the Clery Act. My kids are now out of college, but I'll be making my daughter read this blog post as she decides between medical schools for next year.

    I'm sorry to learn there is so much crime on college campuses, but what a terrific backdrop to your mysteries.

  3. That military college pictured? My youngest daughter graduated from there, three years ago. The scariest thing I ever did was to leave her on a campus with a 94% male population.

    However, when I questioned her safety with an administrator, he was very careful to inform me of the high rates of crime against women at other colleges. Which makes me wonder: why have we not come further than this, in the 21st century, to keep this sort of crime against women from happening? What societal influences are contributing to this sort of violence?


  4. Karen,
    My son's girlfriend runs the Violence Against Women campaign at her college (where both my son and daughter went.) She says that it's actually a relatively a small percentage of offenders but they are repeat offenders because for some reason, colleges do not take this seriously.

    Another problem, and this is more my view than hers, is the level of drinking, which is absolutely insane, and which enables the perpetrators and disarms the girls.

  5. Linda, I'm delighted to find another mystery series set in my favorite place -- academia! I've already pre-orderd Every Last Secret and will be collecting the others as they appear. So get writing, girl! ;0)
    Thank you for sharing your incite on the reality of campus crime, too. I knew nothing of the Clery Act, which is valuable information for me.

  6. Linda, thanks for shining a bright light in some dark corners. And congratulations on the new series!

  7. Anonymous, thanks for the correction. I had read that in my research, but my brain unfortunately was on footbal autopilot.

    Also, I didn't mention this, but Marquette, which is a smaller school is one of those which hasn't set up its own police force.

  8. Jan, the violence against women is usually from repeat offenders, as is nonviolent sexual harassment. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to get the top administration to do anything about these, especially if faculty is involved. When they finally do something about faculty repeat offenders, one of two things seems to happen. Either they allow that person to seek another job and give glowing references to get rid of him--essentially passing on their problme to another unsuspecting campus. Or if they actually try to fire him, they wind up in court. KU did this with a serial sexual harasser in the 1990s, and he's still dragging them through the courts to keep his job.

    And yes, drinking on campus is a serious component of sexual violence and date rape. This is why responsible campuses declare themselves alcohol-free, including frat and sorority houses. Of course, you can't do anything about the bar scene and off-campus parties.

  9. Karen, the rates of violence against women on campuses can look extremely high, but you also want to take some things into consideration. First, on traditional campuses you have a pool of the age group where date rape and sexual violence tend to be heavy. Also, on campuses that are doing a good job, their stats will include crimes that normally go unreported out in the cities and towns of America. That's because a campus that has infrastructure in place to support victims and is focused on prevention will get the reports that cities don't if their system is hostile or just dismissive of victim's complaints.

    Working on campus with students taught me one thing, though. The ingrained misogynism and sexual objectification of women that our society harbors is, not surprisingly, prevalent in the student body. But I have also seen a growing number of young male students actively taking part in actions to prevent rape and change the whole system. That's something you wouldn't find when I was a student--and very hopeful.

  10. AnnOxford, aren't you an absolute dear! Thanks so much.

    If you're interested in writing about academia, Security on Campus, the website of the nonprofit Jeanne Clery's parents founded with their legal judgment in Jeanne's case, is chockfull of information about crime on campus and safety/security info.

  11. Linda, what a fascinating post. And horrifying, but I'm glad to see from your comments that there are young men taking positive action.

    And congratulations on your book! I, too, love books set in academia, so will be looking forward to your novel!

  12. Thanks for the insights, Linda. I'm just glad my three daughters are all grown up and not having to run that gauntlet any more.

    As appalling as the statistics on violence against women are those stories now coming out about coaches insinuating themselves on students and other young MEN in a sexual way. What the? As enlightened as we seem to have become about date rape, etc., it seems as though abuse of power by supposedly virile father-like figures has been simmering along, like another undercurrent of evil.

  13. Thanks for yur kind words, Leslie and Jan. And thanks so much to Jungle Reds for having me today! I'm a little late starting because I was teaching this morning, but I hope I've caught up.

  14. Thanks, Deb! Yes, among the millenial generation there is a growing trend among the brighter young men to consider themselves feminists and act upon that. They're still in the minority, but their numbers are growing steadily.

    Karen, I think sexual violence and sexual harassment against young men and boys has been drastically under-reported for generations. I know it has been on campus. and it's not rare! Sometimes it's perpetrated by groups of male students on other students they feel are weak or vulnerable. Often, it's faculty or other authority figures. and it can be worse for young guys than for girls. Women will help each other, but guys will never be able to confide in anyone.

    I think we need to keep in mind, that most faculty and coaches are not doing these things, but a sizable number are. I remember hearing a married male faculty member at a faculty party discussing new freshman girls like a hunter talking about prey. "That's why I took this job. Every year, a fresh, new crop of yummy girls walking right into my hands."

    The problem is that the good guys, like the good Germans, don't really do anything to stop it. It's not their problem, and it makes them uncomfrotable. That's why I'm so encouraged by the younger men who are taking a different attitude.

  15. *uncomfortable* typing too fast. *sigh*

  16. Linda wrote: "Sometimes it's perpetrated by groups of male students on other students they feel are weak or vulnerable."

    There have been a couple of these incidents out here in MT recently, "hazing" gone horribly wrong, and they've opened eyes to some painful realities.

    "Often, it's faculty or other authority figures. and it can be worse for young guys than for girls."

    Linda, you make excellent points about young men feeling less free to talk and having fewer opportunities to speak up. The recent scandals may help change that. It's really no surprise that pedophiles are showing up in the coaching ranks--they tend to go where the potential victims are, like scouting, day cares, church youth groups, and sports camps.

  17. Leslie, you're right about pedophiles tending to go where kids are. Those who are attracted to boys go to Boy Scouts, Little League teams, etc. Those attracted to girls go to little beauty pageants, gymnastics, cheerleading competitions, and girl's athletics. Some hit jobs or activites that provide both sexes such as churches, schools, etc.

    The sexual attacks by groups of male students on another male student are just another sign of a society where men use sex and violence to prove how masculine they are to other men. As women, we're lucky that we don't have something like that over us all the time. We're defined and sometimes exploited for our sexuality, but we don't have to prove we're "real" women once we start menstruating. Fortunately, more and more men are starting to reject that whole societal thing. It'll be slow, but I have hope.

  18. Unfortunately, as a student and an employee of a community college, I've learned that I have to know college policy better than those who administer it. Far too often administrators use policy not only to defend wrongdoing but as a weapon to punish those who summon the courage to speak up.

    The Penn State abuse scandal is a perfect example of Higher Education's crisis management strategy of getting the victims to speak only to them (so the college lawyers can devise a way out of the problem without litigation and without addressing the cause) and then colleges pressure the victims to not speak of the incident again or to even inquire about how it will be resolved.

    The Clery Act us a gift but colleges find ways around it and few question the stats that these colleges report.

    Also, Clery only counts crimes that occur on campus. Thousands of students live off-campus and many are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, hate crimes, etc. specifically due to their campus connections and activities.

    That’s why I always advise students to learn college policy because one day they might find themselves in a situation where they have to invoke it against another student, faculty member or even the college itself.

    Thanks for your work in this area, Linda. I know how busy you are. For you to take the time to write about this important and neglected topic means so much to those of us who work with and for students.

  19. Thanks, Miguel. You're right about much crime happening off-campus that is related to the victim being a student--she's raped by another student but off-campus, he's attacked and robbed by someone who knew him from campus, etc., etc. If the perpetrator is a student or campus employee of some kind, the campus *may* do something after s/he's arrested and convicted, but the actual report of the crime and the investigation/arrest will fall with the police of the locality where the crime occurred. And no, that crime probably won't make it into the campus stats unless the victim filed a complaint on campus against the person, and in most cases that won't be possible.

  20. Also, Miguel, as far as the Penn State scandal showing the administrators keeping victims from making complaints, that's actually not quite true. (Though I do know it happens.)

    The one time a victim (actually his mother) complained a campus police detective and the county DA ran a sting on Sandusky in which he admitted improperly showering with and touching an 11-year-old boy. It was the DA who decided not to prosecute. Because he didn't think he could get a conviction in a town where Sandusky and Penn State were so popular? who knows? the DA "disappeared" a few years later as he was about to retire and be free to say or write whatever he wanted, his laptop hard drive destroyed.

  21. Linda, Thanks for the Clery Act link!

  22. Sure, Ann. But that site is for Security on Campus. This site is for the Clery Act & you can download the handbook for Campus Crime Reporting, etc. here.

  23. Linda, this is such a brave post. How can we stop this? College is so close to becoming a nightmare.

  24. Claire, if you are involved with a college in any way (your child a student, you work/study there, you are an alum), you can first of all make yourself aware of your school's record. Each university or college or community college must make its report on crime and public safety available. Usually they publish it in the college newspaper once a year and put it on the university's website. You can call or email the college and ask for that report. By law, they must send you a written copy or give you a link to the webpage where it's available.

    More importantly, get involved with the school. Each school will have an alumni association and other committees or groups for volunteers who care about the school. Usually, these are run out of their division of advancement, which will be primarily focused on fundraising. (Colleges are hurting badly in this economic crisis.) You will have to be firm about with campus safety. In some cases, you simply won't be able to be involved. Most campuses don't want the public focusing any kidn of light on this. If it has a women's center, you might try getting involved there--they usually are deeply involved in campus safety issues.

    Get involved with Security on Campus, the nonprofit Jeanne Clery's parents founded. It works with the Dept. of Education and the police departments of many campuses.

    It's an uphill battle, but one that's worth fighting.

  25. *kind* and just forget that extra *with* in that last comment. Word processor's disease. At least, that's my excuse. LOL

  26. One issue with colleges is that the law treats, rightly so, students over 18 as adults. Parents have no rights to student information, unless the student specifically and in writing grants them those rights.

    One of my daughters did sign up for sharing grades, etc. with me, but the other one did not, and legally the school didn't have to contact me. I suspect that is part of the issue.

    When I was a college student my mother had zero idea what I was doing. I paid my own tuition (it was a heckuva lot cheaper then), and made my own life. Now parents are footing the bill for college, which may cost as much as $200,000, and they still cannot access their adult child's records. On the one hand, this is a good thing; on the other, more thought may be required for this one, especially in the case where a student's health and well-being is in jeopardy.

  27. Karen, You're right about the privacy. You can't access a student's records in any way. This is a federal law, known affectionately as FERPA. Any campus employee who violates it will be terminated because the school knows it will face big fines and other penalties.

    It is a problem for parents who are footing the ever-more-expensive bill for their kids, but the college has no wiggle room on this one. It's federal law.

    And my Captcha is *simpr*. I hope not a criticism? (My family would roar at that. Ever since one man called me "formidable" as an insult, it's been their favorite adjective for me.)