Bringing campus crime records into the sunshine

Monday, April 13, 1998

Congress is expected to consider two measures this spring affecting access to university and college crime information.

Security On Campus, Inc., a Pennsylvania-based campus violence prevention group, is leading the effort, along with the Society of Professional Journalists, the Student Press Law Center and victims' rights advocates, to close loopholes in college and university campus crime reporting laws.

The groups have joined forces to back the Accuracy in Campus Crime Reporting Act, a bill currently pending in a House subcommittee. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced the bill in February 1997.

Committees in both the House and Senate have adopted various provisions from ACCRA into their respective versions of the Higher Education Act Amendments of 1998. Both include the following campus security provisions:

  • Revise and expand the list of offenses that must be included in campus crime statistics to include arson and hate crimes.
  • Require institutions to maintain a daily log that records the nature, date, time and general location of each crime reported to the local police or campus security.
  • Make explicit that neither victims nor persons accused of a crime may be identified in the reporting of campus crime statistics, except as required by state or local laws.
  • Require a national study to examine procedures undertaken after institutions of higher education receive reports of sexual assault.
  • Exclude criminal activities from a post-secondary student's educational records.

The House is set to take up reauthorization of the Higher Education Act during the last week in April; the Senate will consider its version sometime in May. Though similar, there are some differences between the two initiatives.

Security On Campus Vice President S. Daniel Carter said: “We prefer the House's version over the Senate's. It's more thought out, more complete and more issues are involved that could lead to greater access and greater campus safety.”

Unlike the Senate version, the House version includes public campus police logs; provisions expanding crime categories that must be disclosed in annual campus crime statistics; and a requirement that the U.S. Department of Education compile and distribute campus crime statistics.

SPJ First Amendment attorney Bob Lystad said that the House version would require schools to create daily police crime logs and make them available to the public. “It would make much more information available to journalists and the public at large about crime that's going on.”

The crime logs provision, Lystad said, is “a step in the right direction,” but he admits that even if the crime security provisions pass Congress this year, “this battle is far from over.”

“We've been pushing both the Department of Education and Congress to amend the Buckley Amendment which they will not do,” Lystad explained.

The Buckley Amendment is a federal privacy law sometimes referred to as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It prohibits schools from releasing student educational records to the public without student or parental consent.

However, schools sometimes interpret educational records broadly to include information about criminal misconduct on campus. By doing so, critics argue, schools hide incidents from public view.

The provision to redefine FERPA, Lystad said, has been dropped from the original legislation. “That's why we say the battle is far from over,” Lystad said.

Carter also expressed disappointment with Congress' failure to adopt new FERPA wording. “The key provision, a change to the Buckley Amendment, is something we haven't gotten yet. …There's no way anyone can say with certainly how things will play out. But the effort is growing and it's getting a lot of attention in Congress.”

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that the fact that both media and victims groups are working closely together could be the reason the effort is gaining congressional attention.

“We all have the same goal; unfortunately media groups aren't treated the same as crime victims. If not for Security On Campus, this would probably not be debated right now,” Goodman said.

Opponents of open access have also become vocal at the congressional level. Michele Goldfarb, Director of the Office of Student Conduct at the University of Pennsylvania testified before a Senate subcommittee last month, saying that opening campus crime records would lead to the deterioration of the integrity of the disciplinary process.

“Victims of the most personal and sensitive kinds of alleged misconduct would never come forward if hearings and disciplinary records were open,” Goldfarb said.

“Campus disciplinary offices are safe and professional places for students to report misconduct. It is very unlikely that victims of misconduct would continue to seek the help they need if they knew that, from the time they stepped into our offices, their matter would be available for review by any member of the public, including the student media.”