Watch Out: Feds Act to Make College Campuses Safer

Glenn Ricketts

I wish I didn’t get the jitters whenever I hear that the federal government is going to do something for higher education, but I think I’m unfortunately snake-bit. So the alarms went off recently when I learned that the US Department of Justice has created the National Center for Campus Public Safety, underwritten by a $2.75 million grant from Congress in the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act. According to the writer of this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, big things—very good big things, he thinks—are in the works:

The center heralds the emergence of a new federal civil right—that of every college student to a reasonably safe learning environment—and a new vision of how the federal government may help to bring about fundamental changes in campus safety. 

According to the CHE article, the “center” is being hailed all around, and enjoys broad bi-partisan congressional support. Two Virginia congressmen, Republican Frank Wolf and Democrat Bobby Scott, have been especially proactive in pushing for a center. They've been prompted by the tragic mass shooting spree at Virginia Tech in April 2007, and more recently by the similar episode in Newtown, Connecticut.

The emergence of the new center has been in the works for some time. Previously, the single piece of federal legislation bearing directly on campus safety was the 1990 Clery Act, (amended 2008) which came in the wake of a 1986 dormitory murder at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Under the provisions of the statute, college and university administrations must submit annual campus crime figures to the US Department of Education, which then compiles them in an online data base. The law also requires all institutions to publish an annual campus security report detailing local crime statistics for prospective and current students, faculty members and other employees. 

Early in 2008, the National Association of College and University Officers (NACUBO, their acronym) launched the Campus Safety and Security Project in July 2009 and published a National Campus Safety and Security Project.  In February, 2011, the US Department of Education published the Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting, an expanded and more comprehensive version of its earlier Handbook for Campus Crime Reporting. That October, the US Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women hosted a National Summit on Campus Safety for College and University Presidents. There’s a lot more, but you can see that the new agency wasn’t just pulled from a hat.

So what exactly is it going to do? According to a DOJ memo, the center will serve as

a resource for campus police chiefs, directors of public safety, professional associations, advocacy organizations, community leaders, and others to improve and expand services to those who are charged with providing a safe environment on the campuses of the nation’s colleges and universities. 

In somewhat more specific terms, the NCCPS will work with DOJ to implement the following goals: 

  • Identify and prioritize the needs of the field and to reach out to key stakeholders and identify their role in the center
  • Serve as the “one-stop shop” for campus public safety
  • Connect existing federal and non-federal resources with the needs of constituents
  • Connect major campus public safety entities with one another, and with federal agencies to facilitate collaboration and coordination around issues of public safety
  • Highlight and promote best and innovative practices specific to campus public safety efforts and develop comprehensive responses that meet the complexity of needs on campus by integrating key issues of public safety
  • Deliver essential training and technical assistance specific to campus public safety 

I couldn’t begin to tell you what that means, but I’m very apprehensive about what I’ll eventually find out. Like anyone else with children, I was deeply anguished by what happened at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School. I’m all in favor of taking whatever steps might plausibly prevent repeat episodes of those tragedies, although I also can’t see at this point what they would be. Whether the effort comes from local law enforcement agencies or federal ones, I wonder what, if anything, could be done to pre-empt an obsessive psychopath who obtains some guns and is determined to use them. 

The new center is also slated to assist college campuses in times of natural disaster, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. That seems reasonable on the face of it, but I wonder why higher education needs special help beyond existing federal programs and agencies. In any case, both of these scenarios, while certainly serious, are also relatively rare and would not likely be the focal point of the center’s activities.

No, what's got me on edge is the thought of what the NCCPS will be doing the rest of the time. That's because it's making its debut during a surge of aggressive federal intrusion into higher education, and could open the door to significantly expanded bureaucratic micromanagement from Washington. What would be required of colleges and universities to make sure that their students are "safe?" And how would the NCCPS monitor campus "safety" policies?

I can give you an idea how. Just think for starters of the mandatory new sexual harassment procedures issued in 2011 by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which we and every mainstream academic organization have strongly denounced.  As we’ve argued, the new federal standards basically impose a kangaroo-court system that’s ludicrously stacked against the accused, and simply erases the due process guarantees that were previously part of campus misconduct procedures. Not that campus procedures weren’t deeply problematical before OCR’s mandate, of course. The Sexual Harassment Industry had long enjoyed local hegemony. But now those often heavily misandrist codes have gone national and are backed up by the enforcement clout of the federal government, through OCR, which can cut off Pell grants or student loans. Small wonder that everyone is jumping meekly—no, make that eagerly—through the hoop. (see here, here, here and here).

So I ask again: what will happen when the National Center for Campus Public Safety hits its stride? What will be the standard under which “safety” is reckoned? Will the center feel bound to protect students from a “hostile environment” or from “offensive speech?” Will it agree with those who think that the local environment is threatening because it isn’t sufficiently “welcoming” or “inclusive?” And what happens if NCCPS decides that your school is "non-compliant?"

 Food for thought. And it's making me even more jittery.

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