Senator pushes bill to shed light on campus violence

Thursday, May 28, 1998

The numbers just didn't add up for Pennsylvania's Sen. Arlen Specter.

After Senate hearings in March revealed that University of Pennsylvania officials had disclosed only 18 campus robberies in 1995 while campus police had actually dealt with 181, Specter decided to introduce the “Campus Crime Disclosure Act of 1998.”

The legislation, introduced last week, is intended to eliminate deception in campus crime statistics.

University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin explained the omission of the 163 robbery reports by claiming that the school “needed to texture the statistics” in order to not appear as the most dangerous college in the Ivy League. Incidents on public streets, sidewalks and restaurants at the school had been excluded from the federally required report.

During the March hearings, David Longanecker of the U.S. Department of Education testified that sidewalks and public lands are excluded from the department's current definition of “campus.” Further testimony showed that buildings used for commercial as well as educational purposes also do not fall within the department's interpretation of “campus.”

“I believe that the omission of such information violates the spirit of the law and is a disservice to parents and students, especially for parents who send their children to college in urban settings, where commercial property such as food shops and retail stores and city streets thread through the entire campus,” Specter said. “I believe it is preposterous to suggest that if a student fell victim to a crime say on a sidewalk which he or she was using to get to class [it] would go unreported.

“While there is much that Congress can do to reduce violence in our society and across all levels of educational institutions, my legislation is focused on our national commitment to improving public safety on college and university campuses, where young adults are often away from their homes for the first time and living in unfamiliar surroundings,” Specter said.

Specter's bill interprets the term “campus” to include:

  • Any building or property owned or controlled by an institution of higher education within the same reasonably contiguous geographic area of the institution, including a building or property owned by the institution, but controlled by another person, such as a food or other retail vendor;
  • Any building or property owned or controlled by a student organization recognized by the institution;
  • All public property that is within the same reasonably contiguous geographic area of the institution, such as a sidewalk, a street, other thoroughfare, or parking facility, that provides immediate access to facilities owned or controlled by the institution;
  • Any building or property owned, controlled, or used by an institution of higher education in direct support of, or related to the institution's educational purposes, that is used by students, and that is not within the same reasonably contiguous geographic area of the institution;
  • All dormitories or other student residential facilities owned or controlled by the institution.

Campus violence prevention advocates applaud the senator's proposal.

“This bill substantially improves, clarifies and strengthens campus crime reporting, plus provides fair penalties,” said Howard Clery, founder of Security On Campus, a Pennsylvania-based group.

Under S.2100, schools that exclude crimes or alter statistics could face up to a $25,000 fine.

S. Daniel Carter said: “The Specter bill provides a set structure” for schools to follow.

“It puts teeth into the fight for campus crime statistic disclosure,” Carter said. “It took someone with the leadership to take time to introduce this initiative. It does address some very important aspects [releasing campus crime records] and I think it will be positively received.”

If passed by the Senate, Specter's bill will be included in the Senate's version of the Higher Education Act Amendments of 1998. The Senate and the House are then expected to incorporate both versions of the amendments into one piece of legislation.

The last action on campus crime records by the House of Representatives came earlier this month when the members unanimously adopted a measure sponsored by Rep. Mark A. Foley, R-Fla.

The Foley Amendment would amend the Buckley Amendment (also known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), a federal privacy law that prohibits schools from releasing student educational records to the public without student or parental consent.

Foley said: “It's concerning for both parents and students alike. We want them to have information so they can make an appropriate judgment call as to the safety of campuses. If you don't know there's a problem, you can't help solve it.”

As for Specter's definition of 'campus,' Foley said, “If you were on the sidewalk in the city, [criminal activity] would obviously be reported. On a campus it should not go unreported. It should be brought forward just as in the public setting.”