Campus agrees to end crime cover-ups

January 2, 1998

A SECOND United States university has decided to make public the names and records of students involved in disciplinary proceedings in response to mounting concern at college crime.

Forced by a lawsuit to provide details of hearings in which students face charges on anything from cheating to assault or sexual harassment, Miami University of Oxford, Ohio, a top-ranking state university founded in 1809, is following a lead set by the University of Georgia four years ago.

Until recently, US universities kept such hearings strictly private, arguing the need to settle student disciplinary problems discreetly. But in Miami, Georgia, and some other states, student newspapers have led a drive for public access with mixed success.

At the University of North Carolina, the Daily Tar Heel is appealing against the result of a civil trial in which it lost its claim that disciplinary hearings were open meetings under state law. At the University of Maryland, the Diamondback is suing for details of thousands of dollars in campus parking fines allegedly notched up by the university's basketball stars. It has left some university administrators complaining of the "tabloidisation" of student affairs.

The Ohio case has come against the backdrop of debate over campus crime this year, with universities forced to counter claims in Congress and elsewhere that crime is vastly under-reported.

The parents of Jeanne Clery, a Pennsylvania student raped and murdered in 1987, continue to press for passage of the Accuracy in Campus Crime Reporting Act, introduced in Congress last February, through their Security on Campus group.

The bill would force colleges to document criminal incidents comprehensively. But while it now has 63 sponsors in the House of Representatives, it is opposed by the American Council on Education, the heavyweight lobbying group for higher education institutions.

There is speculation that the bill's most controversial provision - mandating that all university police logs and student disciplinary proceedings be open to the public - may be dropped in any final version.

Campus cover-ups have received a lot of press this year. While universities are loath to scare off prospective parents, they allegedly fail to report 75 per cent of crimes, arguing that confidentiality is a must for student witnesses.

The Ohio Supreme Court ordered Miami to turn over its records last summer, students' safety was of "utmost importance", at a time of escalating crime rates. The Supreme Court backed the ruling.

Judge Frances Sweeney for the Ohio court said: "For potential students and their parents it is imperative that they are made aware of all campus crime statistics and other types of student misconduct in order to make an intelligent decision on which university to attend."

Miami University was one of several cited by the Department of Education for failing to meet requirements for reporting crimes to the public. It now says it will reveal not only the details of how students were disciplined, but also their names.

"It is the beginning of a trend towards more openness, forcing schools to release this kind of information," said Mark Goodman, of the Student Press Law Centre in Washington.

The University of Georgia is the only college in the US known to conduct student disciplinary proceedings in public, after a Supreme Court case in 1993. Harry Montevideo, director of student publications at the university, said: "It would be hard to be a watchdog of this university without knowing what's going on."

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