The above quote is central to the case against Virginia Tech, particularly in examining the actions of school and law enforcement personnel after the double homicide at 7:15 a.m. The school’s nearly two and one-half hour delay in notifying the campus of the killings raised the legal question, did Virginia Tech break the law by violating the Clery Act?
The Clery Act is named for Jeanne Clery, a 19-year old Lehigh University student who was raped and murdered in her campus residence hall in 1986. Clery’s parents found out that students had not been warned about 38 violent crimes on the Lehigh campus in the three years before their daughter’s murder, and helped persuade congress to pass a law making it mandatory to warn students of violent crimes on campus grounds. Violation of the Clery Act can result in a loss of federal funds for any school, fines or both.
With so much at stake, we need to have an understanding of the parameters of the Clery Act, and we also must look at the legal precedents. In other words, when and under what circumstances has it been found that the Clery Act was violated?
The Clery Act encompasses requirements for many aspects of campus security including the reporting and tracking of several types of crimes, starting with murder and going on to include vandalism and hate crimes. The part that concerns us here has to do with notifying the campus population of the occurrence of crimes included on the mandatory reporting list.
The following description of the notification requirements of the Clery Act comes from www.securityoncampus.org. the Web site for the Clery Center for Security On Campus.
Issue timely warnings about Clery Act crimes which pose a serious or ongoing threat to students and employees. Institutions must provide timely warnings in a manner likely to reach all members of the campus community. This mandate has been part of the Clery Act since its inception in 1990. Timely warnings are limited to those crimes an institution is required to report and include in its ASR [Annual Security Report]. There are differences between what constitutes a timely warning and an emergency notification; however both systems are in place to safeguard students and campus employees.
Devise an emergency response, notification and testing policy. Institutions are required to inform the campus community about a “significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or employees occurring on the campus.” An emergency response expands the definition of timely warning as it includes both Clery Act crimes and other types of emergencies (i.e., a fire or infectious disease outbreak). Colleges and universities with and without on-campus residential facilities must have emergency response and evacuation procedures in place. Institutions are mandated to disclose a summary of these procedures in place. Institutions are mandated to disclose a summary of these procedures in their ASR. Additionally, a compliance requires one test of the emergency response procedures annually and policies for publicizing those procedures in conjunction with the annual test.
It is clear from this reading of the law that not only are warnings of a murder by an unknown, and at large, gunman required, but they should also be “timely.” It is behind the definition of “timely” that Virginia Tech’s administration decided to hide. But before we examine Tech’s “timely” excuse, let’s look at some schools that have been found guilty of violating the Clery Act.
The case against Eastern Michigan University is the highest fine imposed on an institution. The school was fined $357,500 for failing to warn the campus of a 2006 student's assault and death.
Eastern Michigan University student Laura Dickinson was murdered by a fellow student on December 13, 2006. Dickinson was found in her room four days after her murder. She was naked, a pillow over her head, and there were traces of semen on one leg. The police later said there was “no reason to suspect foul play.” The school therefore did not issue a warning. Ten weeks later, however, student Orange Taylor III was arrested and charged with Dickinson’s murder. It just so happened that Taylor’s arrest occurred on the first day that students could not withdraw from classes and housing and receive a full refund.
After a thorough investigation, the school was found in violation of the Clery Act for not notifying students of the danger. School President John A. Fallon was fired; no reason was given for his termination, but the press reported it was for his apparent role in the cover up. Cindy Hall, the Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police were both relieved of their jobs.
On December 13, 2007, the school settled with Laura Dickinson’s family for $2.5 million. The school did not admit any guilt. Orange Taylor III was convicted of first-degree murder and sexual assault. He was sentenced to life in prison on May 8, 2008.
There is a parallel between Eastern Michigan and Virginia Tech. That parallel is the failure of a school and police officials to warn a campus when confronted with a student homicide. Yes, the lengths of the delays were completely different, but in both cases the schools trivialized a homicide in order to delay a campus-wide notification. Whether you wait over two hours or over two months to warn is irrelevant. The Clery Act calls for a warning to be given to the campus population when a murder occurs on that campus. It does not distinguish between murders by deranged gunmen, murders by rapists and murders caused by a supposed domestic dispute. If someone is found murdered on campus, an immediate warning is called for.
In the case of Virginia Tech, the argument as to whether the school violated the Clery Act has been heated and prolonged. The school’s propaganda campaign has been effective and potent. Virginia Tech, coupled with its powerful allies in Richmond, has persuaded many alumni that it did nothing wrong. In fact, the school has carried out a well-orchestrated public relations campaign, arguing that you cannot be a proud and faithful Hokie and criticize the way the Steger administration handled the events of April 16, 2007.
I would argue that you cannot be a proud Hokie alumnus or alumna and condone the Steger administration’s lack of action on April 16, 2007. For me, there is no doubt—Virginia Tech violated the law. And I am not alone in that opinion. (To be continued)