By Collin Binkley and Sara Gregory at The Columbus Dispatch
Lawmakers are calling for greater transparency in college discipline systems after a joint investigation by The Dispatch and the Washington, D.C.-based Student Press Law Center revealed deep problems.
At both the state and national levels, elected officials and education experts said they were troubled by the findings of the investigation, which were reported in The Dispatch last week.
Several said colleges should be made more accountable for discipline decisions that are made in secret, often without the help or knowledge of police.
“American colleges and universities should be safe spaces to learn and grow,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a statement responding to the investigation. “That’s why it’s so important that any criminal allegations are handled fairly and responsibly –– to guarantee students’ due process while delivering justice for victims and ensuring all students are protected.”
To achieve that goal, Brown added, there must be minimum training standards for campus employees, greater transparency in their work and more accountability for schools.
The investigation was based on discipline records from almost 2,000 violent cases provided by 25 public universities across the country, including all 13 in Ohio and two of their branch campuses. It found that:
• Colleges have dealt light punishments for offenses as serious as homicide and sexual assault, sometimes issuing no more than probation or ordering students to write a reflective essay on their misconduct.
• Schools widely refuse to publicize discipline decisions for violent offenses, despite laws that allow and sometimes require the release of those records to the public.
• Secrecy by schools can make it easy for students to hide violent histories when they transfer to another school.
• Campus courts don’t guarantee students many of the rights that are required in criminal courts.
In Ohio, the statewide campus-safety chief said he plans to begin discussions about a new system that would help schools share student-discipline records. Many schools omit that information on academic transcripts, allowing students to transfer to other colleges with relative ease after they have been expelled or suspended for violent offenses.
“Institutions need to use that information just like they do any other piece of information when they’re considering an admission decision,” said Rick Amweg, director of campus safety and security for the Ohio Board of Regents. “What we have to work on is how we do it.”
Elected officials in Washington, D.C., said they are tackling that problem, too.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said she is working on legislation that would tell colleges they need to share information about students who are under investigation for sexual assault or have been found responsible for that offense, as a way of warning other schools if those students try to transfer.
“Colleges and universities cannot safeguard the campus community if they don’t know when a potential predator is enrolling,” Speier wrote in a statement last week.
Among other findings, the investigation reported that in 158 sexual-assault cases provided by the 25 colleges, only seven students faced criminal charges.
That number alarmed state Sen. Peggy Lehner, a Republican from Kettering and head of the Senate Education Committee. The findings merit discussion at the Statehouse, she said, especially as lawmakers continue to work to fix another problem –– overly harsh discipline in K-12 schools.
“It is rather ironic that, as we look to make the punishment more fit the crime in the K-12 realm, we obviously have a big problem at the higher-ed level,” Lehner said.
Education experts are conflicted about how to fix problems with college discipline.
Some critics contend that schools shouldn’t be investigating and judging violent cases at all, but federal rules require colleges to take action in some cases. To balance those factors, some have urged universities to hire outside experts from the criminal-justice system to investigate misconduct, or to bring in current faculty members with legal training, such as law professors or former judges.
Joe Cohn is among those who want colleges to play only a supporting role to law-enforcement agencies in violent cases. But in his work for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil-liberties group, Cohn has proposed simpler fixes first, such as allowing students to bring lawyers into campus judicial hearings.
“I think we’re going to make smaller changes before we make bigger changes,” said Cohn, the legislative and policy director for the Philadelphia-based organization.
To improve transparency, some in the industry have called on colleges to note major conduct violations on academic transcripts.
An association of college-conduct officers has backed that idea, but an association of registrars and admissions officers has recommended against it. At the heart of the debate is whether discipline decisions should be considered academic records and, if so, which offenses should be noted on transcripts.
“It’s an ongoing dialogue,” said Brad Myers, registrar of Ohio State University and president of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “There are a lot more institutions talking about this as it gets more visibility within the legislative arena.”
Some federal rules are changing to make colleges more consistent in their rulings. Starting next year nationwide, each college will have to agree on a list of possible punishments that could be dealt for specific misconduct. Updates also will allow students to bring lawyers into hearings, which some schools traditionally have forbidden.
In general, though, colleges have opposed more regulation.
“There’s already so much federal regulation that’s hard to meet,” said Andrea Goldblum, a consultant and former conduct officer for Ohio State University. Instead, she suggested that the federal government help in another way: “holding schools accountable that don’t do it well.”
Some safety advocates said they’re waiting to see whether the new rules lead to improvement.
“There’s a lack of training, a lack of understanding and a lack of institutional support, so I don’t know right now if adding more laws is going to fix this,” said Alison Kiss, the executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, a campus-safety advocacy group in Wayne, Pa. “ There’s only so much we can legislate.”
The recent Dispatch/SPLC findings are part of a broader investigation of crime on college campuses. An earlier report found that schools have underreported crimes, either intentionally or because of widespread confusion about complex federal rules.
New national crime statistics, though, indicate that sexual assaults have been reported in record numbers on college campuses as the problem gained national attention under pressure from students and the White House.
From 2011 to 2013, campus sexual-assault reports increased by 38 percent, according to statistics reported by colleges this year under requirements of the federal Clery Act.
That’s a good thing, said Kiss, of the Clery Center.
“It’s exciting because you now have students reporting the most underreported crime,” Kiss said. “We’ve known for years that the numbers weren’t reflecting what was actually happening.”
Despite the overall increase in reporting, almost half of colleges with housing — 46 percent — didn’t report a single sex crime in 2013, according to a Dispatch/SPLC analysis of the newly released statistics. In 2011, 55 percent of colleges reported zero sexual assaults.
Campus crime experts say it’s unlikely that those zeros provide an accurate reflection of campus sexual assaults. Instead, some say the zeros indicate larger problems with the statistics, which can be deceptively low because colleges frequently fail to count reports accurately, and because colleges are allowed to omit off-campus crimes, even those involving students.
As colleges fielded more reports of sexual assault, there also was an increase in the number of students who were punished, according to a review of disciplinary records provided by the 25 colleges. In the school year that ended in 2010, those schools found 25 students responsible for sexual assault. Two years later, that number had increased to 57.