The Best-Kept Secret: Crime on Campus
In Indiana, a Ball State University student’s lifeless, bullet-riddled body is discovered at dawn, wedged between the seats of his car. A 19-year-old Iowa student is stabbed to death in plain sight in a campus-dining hall at the Maharishi University. A Fort Hays college freshman is savagely beaten just off campus in Kansas, and dies days later. Three young female students are raped during a burglary one block from Rutgers University in New Jersey.
And, just recently, a 22-year-old man became the second Hampton University student gunned down during the 2003-2004 academic year.
Crime is increasingly characterizing the contemporary college experience. In a post-Columbine, post-Sept. 11 world, the “It can’t happen here” response to such violence has been replaced with “Oh Lord, not again.”
Therefore, while most parents expect to provide tuition, advice and encouragement for their college-bound children, many parents must now become adept at helping them cope with the aftermath of robbery, rape and in the most severe cases, murder.
This is the situation John and Karen Grace of California now face. On March 1, 2003, their son, Matthew, then an 18-year-old freshman at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and 12 other students found themselves on the street in the early morning hours at the mercy of an apparently drug-crazed, gun-wielding assailant. By all accounts, including those in the Washington Post and the Hilltop, Howard’s student-run newspaper, Matthew and the other students were allegedly instructed by campus security to vacate the dormitory lobby where they were making arrangements for late-night cab transportation. Fortunately, the students survived the encounter with the armed assailant, but five bullets penetrated Matthew Grace’s legs, and Geary Johnson, also a Howard freshman, was wounded as well.
Both students recovered, physically that is, and were even responsible for the assailant’s subsequent capture. Matthew Grace returned to Howard after the incident; Geary Johnson did not.
As a parent, John Grace, president of Investors Advantage Corp. in Westlake Village, Calif., says he must support his son’s decision to return to Howard. He also says he finds no fault with the way D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department handled this particular incident after which his son lay bleeding in the street fearing he was paralyzed. And the elder Grace makes it clear that he understands bad things can happen any time, any place.
What Grace objects to is what he describes as Howard University’s inadequate response to the attack, particularly since members of the university’s security staff were directly responsible for the students’ presence on the street in the first place. To make matters worse, Grace says he and his wife learned of their son’s fate from a friend in Texas — they say they received no notification that night from anyone at the university.
Speaking to the Washington Post in 2003, one month following the attack, J.J. Pryor, the assistant vice president for university communications at Howard University, acknowledged the events of that evening. But Pryor says because of a well-attended dance on campus there were extenuating circumstances in the students’ encounter with campus security. “It wasn’t that they were picked out and made to leave,” Pryor told the Post. “They just asked them to leave the lobby. … They were just asked to keep it down. It was just a very unfortunate incident.”
In response to what the Graces perceive as Howard’s inadequate response and failure following the incident to put effective strategies and procedures in place to ensure students’ safety, the family has made it their mission to at least minimize the possibility of this happening again. As part of that endeavor, the Grace and Johnson families recently filed suit against Howard University for negligence and punitive damages.
‘ONE OF THE BEST-KEPT SECRETS…’
Howard and Connie Clery were compelled in a similar fashion following the 1986 death of their daughter on the Lehigh University campus in Pennsylvania. Early one Sunday morning in April, Jeanne Clery, 19, was tortured, raped and murdered in her dormitory room. Her assailant, another Lehigh student, had easy access to her room through a series of dormitory doors, all of which were supposed to be locked but were instead left propped open.
The Clerys claim the university refused any responsibility in their daughter’s death, despite the fact that there were almost 200 reports of open dormitory doors registered with the university prior to Jeanne’s murder.
In response to their loss and the lack of institutional support they received, the Clerys filed suit against Lehigh University, citing “negligent failure of security and failure to warn of foreseeable dangers on campus.” Their subsequent settlement included the university’s agreement to take specific steps to make the campus safer.
After their daughter’s death, the Clerys founded Security on Campus Inc., a nonprofit organization designed to work on a national scale toward crime prevention on campus, and to assist other victims of campus crime.
The Clerys assess their personal ordeal on their Web site, <www.securityoncampus.org>, and say because of the murder, they discovered “crime on campus was one of the best-kept secrets in the country.”
To lessen the secrecy about safety issues that helped seal their daughter’s fate, the Clerys, along with other victims of campus crime, advocated for the creation of the federal Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990, which in 1998 was renamed the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Statistics Act. Enforced by the U.S. Department of Education, this federal mandate requires those U.S. colleges and universities that receive federal financial aid to submit an annual statistical report tallying crimes on and around their campuses.
Catherine Bath, program director of Security on Campus Inc., says the organization is most famous for its policy work. Bath lost her own son, Raheem, in 1999 when he died from alcohol-related aspiration pneumonia while he was a student at Duke University. Like the Clerys, Bath’s son’s death spurred her own advocacy, particularly against the dangers of alcohol on college campuses.
“We are a unique resource,” Bath explains. “Victims find us on the Web and often call after some judicial system (has failed them). They (usually feel they) have been double wronged and then contact us. We can and often do intervene on behalf of the victim, contact (college and university) presidents and administrators and put them on the radar,” she says.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes since we started in 1987,” Bath says. “The Clerys were powerful advocates (for change). There was no more hiding behind the ivory tower. The public is now more aware.”
A DIFFERENT WORLD
Dr. Delight Champaign, director of the student personnel administration in higher education program at Springfield College in Massachusetts and member of the Professional Issues Core Council of the American College Personnel Association (ACPA), agrees that the days of ivory tower “immunity” are over.
During the 2004 ACPA national convention in Philadelphia in April, Champaign facilitated a session for student affairs professionals titled, “Safe Enough to Learn? College Environments in Violent Times,” and indicated that many institutions are actively implementing strategies to enhance security, particularly in light of the extreme complexity of personal safety issues, hate crimes and the added threat of global terrorism.
“(Campus safety) is a serious topic, and it is necessary for all of us to be in tune with it,” Champaign says. “We need to check out our own systems and make sure our students are secure.”
Champaign gathered a wealth of informational resources from various institutions, a process she says parents can replicate by visiting college Web sites. “If (an institution has) had a problem, (the institution has) a plan,” she says. Other institutions can take advantage of this resource information as well and learn from the experiences of others.
She points out that the variance in the definition of terms from institution to institution was the most challenging aspect of compiling these resources, but also adds that those Web sites that are up-to-date, easy to access and include the names of contact people are indicative of an institution’s commitment level to campus safety.
Champaign stresses that an awareness of resources is essential for people like student affairs personnel who work with students on a daily basis — and argues the importance of both response and prevention measures for college campuses. And, she says, good communication systems to disseminate information and implement practices are imperative.
Dr. Marsha Jackson, associate vice president for student affairs at Erie Community College in Buffalo, N.Y., agrees with the significance of good communications systems and notes that college campuses “can be feeding grounds for bad things that happen.”
She says the key lies in educating the community. “We might have a plan, but is it out there?”
Jackson says that any type of college campus, whether residential, urban or rural, has its own particular issues. The amount of secluded, wooded areas in a rural setting, for example, or the type of lighting in an urban one, and whether the college has safety escort services are things to take into account when considering safety on campus.
But regardless of the type of campus, Jackson says institutions need to actively heighten safety awareness and can learn from each another. “Find out what the resources are in your region and share information,” she says.
Jackson also insists universities should instruct students as soon as they step on campus, if not before, about ways to enhance their personal safety.
“Campus safety has to be part of new student orientation, part of the handbook, and hopefully done in a way that people see how important it is,” she says.
THE RESPONSE MAKES A DIFFERENCE
When Erie Community College students advocated for an identification system that requires badges for all students, faculty and staff, Jackson says the college responded and put the system in place — before any crisis occurred.
The crisis communication plan put in place in 2001 at Norfolk State University, for example, facilitated the institution’s response to a fatal shooting in 2003, says Sharon Hoggard, director of news and media relations at the historically Black college in Virginia.
Hoggard explains that the 2003 murder “was something that spilled over to our campus” when a young man from the surrounding urban area was gunned down on campus grounds by another young man from the neighborhood. Nevertheless, students, faculty and staff who witnessed the attack immediately went into action.
“We have a couple of heroes we have never been able to identify,” Hoggard says in reference to two NSU students who administered first aid to the victim and kept him alive until the ambulance arrived. Unfortunately, he died the next day.
Campus and city police departments collaborated to secure and investigate the murder scene, Hoggard says, while college administrators assembled the university’s crisis team. They quickly went public with the incident with a news conference and took immediate measures to further secure the campus.
“Every organization — from McDonald’s to large public institutions — needs to have an organized response,” Hoggard says. “You can lose your credibility (if you don’t).”
Hoggard says that campus safety was a major issue at NSU prior to the 2003 tragedy. Requests for funding to build structures such as walls and shrubbery to limit physical access to the campus was already part of the president’s budget. Campus police already conducted 24-hour foot patrols, and the city sheriff’s department also was on board. A safety escort service had been established, and emergency call boxes were installed on campus.
After the incident, a campus buddy system was implemented and, according to Hoggard, “live bodies were put on gates, gates were locked down, and the campus took an active role in providing safety briefings.”
NSU also had a faculty and staff identification system in place before the murder on campus — because of the threat of global terrorism. “Every one is tightening security,” Hoggard says. As of April 1, 2004, in addition to safety and security personnel, every new NSU employee is subject to a criminal background check before they are hired. “(The September 11 attacks) did a lot to change things,” Hoggard says.
A POSITIVE FROM A NEGATIVE
In 1998, when two White men bludgeoned and seriously injured a young Black man with the handle of an ax near the Oxford campus of Miami University of Ohio, life in that small college town changed.
Dubbed “J. Crew U.” because of its affluent, predominantly White population, the campus community was outraged by the incident — which was deemed a racist, homophobic hate crime — and was galvanized into action. A reward for the capture of the perpetrators, campus forums and an anti-hate community organization were quickly established.
And the university’s formal response to this incident continues to yield remarkable results.
“This is an example of how something very positive can emerge out of something very negative,” says Dr. Ronald Crutcher, Miami University provost and executive vice president who will assume the presidency at Wheaton College on July 15 (see Black Issues, April 22).
Crutcher says Miami University’s presidential council developed an institutional diversity plan to help the community learn from this crime. In 1999, the university made its “highest priority to develop a multicultural center.” Yet, as Crutcher notes, the Center for American and World Cultures at Miami University is more than that. In the fall of 2000, the center implemented a lecture series featuring such scholars as Dr. Cornel West, William Bowen, Angela E. Oh, Lani Guinier, Claude Steele and Anthony Appiah. At the time the series was launched, however, the center had no physical site.
As one of the center’s several ancillary programs, a course in American cultures is offered to freshman. Students attend discussion sessions and familiarize themselves with the work of upcoming lecturers in the series.
“We have not had one lecture that has not been unattended,” Crutcher says.
The Center for American and World Cultures is now housed with other university programs such as American studies, Asian studies, Black World studies, Jewish studies, Latin American studies and Women’s studies, among others.
“Miami is much further along than most people think,” Crutcher says in reference to the university’s reputation as an exclusive institution. “The center has helped tremendously. We will as a university utilize diversity such that by 2009 excellence and inclusion cannot be separated.”
SAFETY INTEGRAL TO EXCELLENCE
In her research, Springfield’s Champaign makes it clear the important connection between a “sense of security and the effects upon students’ academic performance” and adds that university and college campuses need “everyone on board,” to achieve that sense, not just offices of public safety or departments of student affairs.
Who is responsible for safety planning on your campus? What is the plan and how comprehensive is it? How is the plan implemented and shared with the college community? These are some of the questions Champaign says are necessary to ask when assessing campus safety.
And these are the questions that still concern the Grace family following their son’s ordeal at Howard University. John Grace says the answers are woefully inadequate.
After the attack, Grace says his son received a basket of fruit from Howard University president Patrick Swygert; vending machines were installed in the freshman dormitory so that students could get food at night without having to leave the building; and bus service was rearranged to service freshman living in the dormitory close to where the students were assaulted on the edge of campus.
But Grace is concerned that the university does not have all the proper mechanisms in place to protect its students and says it is difficult for students to properly excel when they must focus so heavily on their safety. He insists that this incident can become an opportunity to implement systematic changes at the university to minimize future problems. In an August 2003 e-mail message to President Swygert, Grace asked that the university make safety its first priority with “permanent measures that demonstrate (Howard University) is taking responsibility for campus security, student safety and campus police education and training.” One year later, Grace continues to ask.
The university declined comment when contacted by Black Issues.
Grace notes that to advocate for more effective change is part of his responsibility as a parent.
“Why should we bury our hopes and dreams?” Grace says about the possibility of another even more tragic incident. This is a wake-up call that needs to be answered, he says, “Before we have to start dressing up for funerals.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com