Virginia Tech Massacre: Fear by Students vs. Fear by Administrators?


There’s fear by students, and then there’s fear by college administrators of negative publicity. Both were at play at Virginia Tech on Monday. The administrators’ fear, old and entrenched, may be part of the reason college officials didn’t warn students after the initial shootings Monday that a gunmen was still on the loose.

The original push to force colleges to go public with their crime statistics was initially opposed by many college administrators, as well as by President George H.W. Bush, in the late ’80s. But Bush’s mind was changed after a personal appeal by the parents of a murdered Lehigh University student named Jeanne Ann Clery that moved the president to tears, one of Bush’s advisers at the time tells the Voice.

A federal law that orders colleges to report their crime statistics was then passed in the early ’90s and later amended. Opposition to such a law was strong and bipartisan, says the adviser, Doug Wead, who got into trouble with the Bush family in 2005 for taping George W. Bush.

Wead, a master networker famous in Amway circles, was a special assistant to the president back in the late ’80s. Primarily a liaison for Bush Sr. to the evangelical right-wing of the GOP, he recalls setting up a meeting in 1989 between the president and Clery’s family.

That year, H.R. 3344 was introduced in the House to require colleges to report crime stats. As Wead tells it:

The idea was that if a university had to report crimes committed on campus no parent would send their child to a school that had poor numbers. So to assure good stats and compete favorably with other universities, security would be upgraded, cameras, safety locks on doors, and so on. Simple enough.

But both Democrats and Republicans were loaded with opposition. Bush Sr., my boss, was publicly against it.

So into my White House office walks Frank Carrington, the so-called father of victim’s rights. [The late Carrington founded the National Victim Center’s Crime Victims’ Litigation Program.] He brings with him Howard and Connie Clery and they tell me the story of how their daughter Jeanne was raped and murdered at Lehigh University because the door to her dorm was left open. They seem so helpless. They tremble as they tell their story. And we are all in tears, but what to do about it?

Ace networker that he is, Wead realized that Bush was going to meet with law-enforcement people that week, so he told the Clerys to join the meeting:

I rehearsed them, telling them that I would be asking each person around the table to say something and when I got to them to blurt out their story to the president. I knew GHWB. He was a softy. They blurted and he changed his position within days.

I don’t know what happened to H.R. 3344, but I will never forget the helplessness.

In fact, that particular legislation was transformed into the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990, which Bush signed but which fell short of ranking colleges and whose results are difficult to wade through. The law has been amended several times and is now formally called the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, “requiring all colleges receiving federal funds to report crime statistics.”

The Clerys, meanwhile, set up an organization called Security on Campus, which is still active in pushing colleges, sometimes by suing them, toward openness about crimes committed against students and others on campuses. As they explain on their website:

Our daughter died because of what she didn’t know. The first major initiative of Security of Campus was to ensure that the same fate did not befall other students. In 1987 we began efforts towards enacting laws requiring colleges and universities nationwide to make available, to current and prospective students, complete information about violent campus crimes and drug and alcohol offenses, and, in addition, to provide information about security procedures already in effect.

Security on Campus is extremely active in court against colleges. It recently tried to pressure Harvard into easing a rape-report policy that places additional burdens on victims.

A fear of publicity may have been at work Monday when Virginia Tech officials didn’t warn their 27,000 students that two students had been murdered and the suspect was still at large. Later in the day, 30 more people were killed, allegedly by the same gunman. Was there a reluctance to scare students and thus cause a panic? Or was there simply a fear that too much bad publicity would result from the revelation of the first shootings, in which two people were killed? Maybe those questions will be answered only in court. With more than 30 victims, lawsuits against Virginia Tech officials are virtually a certainty. And organizations like the one set up by the Clery family are already experienced. As the Clerys note on their website.

In 1989, we established, as a part of Security On Campus, the Campus Victims Litigation Program. This, the first program of its kind in the nation, has developed a database of case law in civil actions by victims of campus crimes and victims of administrative coverups of such crimes. This, and other legal information, is available to victims themselves, their attorneys and to all other parties who wish to do something constructive about preventing campus crime.

It’s too late for that at Virginia Tech, but it’s not too late to investigate whether there any coverup of information regarding the campus’s first series of shootings Monday.

If so, it still may be difficult to determine what happened, let alone force colleges to be transparent about its responses to crime. Opposition to crackdowns on campus crime, for instance, cuts across party lines. As Wead tells me:

Conservatives resist any gun laws and they don’t like more regulations even if those regulations are for academia. They don’t like to see the private sector burdened down by rules set by government. It means just more reports and paper.

Liberals, on the other hand, depend on academia for votes, ideas, money, and teams of eager student volunteers. Universities hate this whole idea of accountability because they have to spend money on security to compete with other schools, to make their stats look good by comparison. Who wants to see their campus in the top ten murder campuses in the country?