Court opens lid on campus crime

August 1, 1997

A court has ordered student disciplinary proceedings in the United States to be open to the public following criticism that universities and colleges are using secret hearings to cover up crimes on their campus.

The decision, in a lawsuit brought by the student newspaper at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, affects public universities in that state only. But it gives impetus to a proposed federal law that would open student disciplinary hearings nationwide.

Benjamin Clery, whose sister was murdered by a fellow student at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania in 1986, is president of a pressure group, Security on Campus. He said: "Opening up the hearings is an absolute necessity. It's really an anathema to the democratic process in this country and open government, but more importantly it is the last refuge of corrupt campus crime practice."

Mr Clery and his family were instrumental in the passage of a 1992 law requiring that colleges and universities annually report the number of crimes on campuses. But a government report in March said many schools were skirting the law and grossly under-reporting crime rates fearing they scared off prospective students.

Colleges and universities are persuading student victims not to bring charges through the criminal courts but through closed-door campus disciplinary panels whose proceedings they maintain are protected by strict federal laws that guarantee the privacy of student academic and financial records.

But the Ohio Supreme Court ruled this month that student disciplinary cases are not "education records" and therefore not subject to the privacy laws.

"It is imperative that (prospective students and their parents) are made aware of all campus crime statistics and other types of student misconduct in order to make an intelligent decision about which university to attend," Justice Francis E. Sweeney wrote for the court.

Spokesman Richard D. Little said the 16,000-student public university probably would not appeal against the decision.

A bill before Congress would open student criminal records nationwide. It also would strip federal funding from schools that failed to report their crime statistics accurately.

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