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Tracking Violence Against Students

March 30, 2012

Colleges would be required to track and report claims of dating violence, domestic violence and stalking on campus if a bill before the Senate is passed. While some hail it as an important step toward stopping those crimes, others call it a well-intentioned but perhaps misdirected effort that would prove burdensome to colleges.

The bill, the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization, deals mainly with a series of federal programs to prevent domestic violence and rape, and to ensure that such crimes are tracked and prosecuted. Most of the programs have nothing to do with higher education, but one provision calls for an expansion of the Clery Act, which mandates that colleges track and publicly report instances of certain crimes each year. Sexual assault is on the current list of crimes that colleges must report, but stalking and broad applications of domestic and dating violence are not. Democrats have recently made the legislation a top priority, which some suspect is a tactic to force Republican opponents to either vote yes or be perceived as anti-woman.

Juley Fulcher, director of policy programs at Break the Cycle, a group dedicated to protecting young people from violence, has been working to include those three new categories in the Clery Act since 1997. Young adults and teens are at an especially high risk for these types of crimes, Fulcher said, and asking colleges to track those reports would help draw attention to their prevalence.

“It’s important to know what the problem is in order to be able to solve it,” she said. “It’s going to help colleges and universities recognize how big the problem is on their campus so that they can now take effective measures to deal with it.”

No one argues that the provision’s goals are ignoble. But Becky Timmons, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education, worries the bill’s passage would make Clery Act compliance more challenging and might not do much to improve safety.

“It’s one of those kinds of bills with worthy goals that we’d love to support,” she said, “but on the other hand, one of the things that makes it difficult for campuses to comply with the Clery Act is that it changes so often. We clearly have mixed feelings about it.”

Lawmakers have added provisions to the act five times since its passage in 1990, including a set of new requirements in 2008 that includes the tracking of registered sex offenders.

Fulcher is skeptical that the three additions being debated would be much of an inconvenience. “We honestly do not believe that we’re putting a big burden on universities,” she said. “Quite frankly, we heard the same concerns when we started asking them to track sexual assaults.”

Colleges aren’t asked to survey students about whether they’ve been victimized, only to tally up the number of reports that come to campus authorities each year and make a public report to the government.

When introduced in a separate bill by Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, the Clery expansion stalled. Now tacked onto the Violence Against Women Act, a law that had wide bipartisan support in previous iterations, the provision’s passage is still not a foregone conclusion.

The Senate is expected to debate the bill as early as next month, but VAWA reauthorization has drawn unexpected controversy because of a series of new provisions that protect individuals in same-sex relationships and extend temporary residency to violence victims who are illegal immigrants. Those protections trouble some Republicans, though others have expressed their support. The bill has the support of Security on Campus, Inc., which was founded by the parents of Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University freshman who was murdered on campus in 1987 and for whom the crime reporting act is named.

Fulcher acknowledges that stopping violence requires much more than simply tracking how often it occurs. But coupled with campus police training funded by the reauthorization and continuing education efforts, she believes the bill’s passage would help.

She points to a series of high-profile cases -- including the murder of University of Virginia student Yeardley Love by her ex-boyfriend and classmate -- that have raised the issue’s profile nationally and made it a political priority. And with so many victims of dating violence and stalking being college-aged, Fulcher believes expanding the Clery Act to include those crimes is a natural step that could help stop future attacks.

“It’s a grand opportunity that we have all these young people in one place,” she said. “Here’s a great way that we can really work to prevent it and set a culture of mutual respect."

 

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