Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Campus safety

Just a week after the horrific murder of Yeardley Love, University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III met with Governor Bob McDonnell to explore ways that changes in state law can make our campuses safer. Casteen believes that UVA would have been able to take preemptive steps to prevent Love's death if university officials had been aware of George Huguely's arrest in Lexington two years ago. Casteen said, such information "would have lit our system." He continued, "It becomes almost an obligation for the student to demonstrate that whatever behavior caused the [issue] has been in some way addressed. We regularly require students to leave the university to undergo psychological or other treatment and in some cases we don’t readmit them."
Perhaps President Casteen is correct in this instance, however it is hard to imagine that any safeguard would provide complete protection against the uncertainties of human behavior. But, perhaps a few changes in state law, with funding, can help universities better protect students. Knowledge is power and colleges and universities should know as much as possible (within reasonable privacy rights) about their students to best assure a safe learning environment.
Whatever approaches are being considered, we must be very careful to not place extra burdens on law enforcement and on our judicial system. Doing so may help one problem while creating many others. The main burden of securing this information should be placed squarely on those who will use it - the college or university.
It seems to me that one fairly simple and reasonably inexpensive change could be the way the Virginia Judicial System reports the status of cases online. Currently, if I want to check up on John Doe's case, his sentence, etc., I have to know which court has jurisdiction so I can conduct a search. Was John busted in Waynesboro or Augusta County? Or was it Albemarle? To conduct an effective search I must have some prior knowledge and be persistent in what may be a time consuming search. If I find the case, great! But, with the current system, I'm not alerted to John's other case(s) pending in Virginia Beach and Harrisonburg.
If the Virginia Judicial System had a truly global search of all district and circuit courts, college officials could more effectively and efficiently find out about students arrests, cases, and convictions. The information would be retrievable, but the burden of searching for it would be placed where it belongs - on college and university officials. Surely the technology exists to automate such searches. Both public and private schools would be empowered.
Would this fairly simple change "fix" the problem? No way! Juvenile convictions would not (and should not) be part of the public record. Likewise, we'd not be aware of John's arrest during spring break in Daytona Beach - with many out-of-state and foreign students, college and university officials will remain unaware of criminal issues beyond the commonwealth.
A simple, but partial, solution that is relatively inexpensive and might even be in place during the next academic year. A change that would not pile unnecessary and distracting work on police and courts. And, since all of these court records are already public, there are no significant privacy concerns.

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