Senate bill deals with ‘dangerous’ students

By November 8, 2007

Hopkins officials are welcoming a newly approved congressional amendment that would provide clearer guidelines for identifying “dangerous” students.

The Senate approved the Brown-Webb amendment in October, in response to last spring’s shootings at Virginia Tech.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Jim Webb (D-Va.), will push the Department of Education to update the original guidelines for colleges, which were written in 2002 in conjunction with the Secret Service.

“Clearly, after the situation that happened in Virginia last April, it is apparent that there is some confusion across the country as to what is permissible to deal with such situations,” said Hopkins spokesman Dennis O’Shea.

“Some clarification would be helpful,” he said.

William Conley, dean of Enrollment and Academic Services, also welcomes the clarification.

“We’re getting together independent of this to find what are our thresholds,” Conley said. “We’re going to need to get guidelines.”

Bethany Lesser, Brown’s press secretary, said that the Senator decided to spearhead the drive to add the Brown-Webb amendment to the appropriations bill after the school shootings at SuccessTech Academy in Cleveland, Ohio. Following the advice of administrators that they need guidelines, Brown worked with the Webb office, which is concerned about the issue after the Virginia Tech shootings, to get the amendment accepted.

The goal was to “make sure that schools would have the information needed to deal with campus security,” Lesser said.

Educational rights are not without controversy, however. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that takes on cases of alleged infringements on student freedom, points to a number of recent cases that deal with educational rights and conflict between students and college and university administrations.

“We believe it is imperative that colleges remain steadfast in their commitment to free expression in the course of determining whether particular students are ‘dangerous,’” said Will Creeley, senior program officer for FIRE, while refusing to comment on legislation currently moving through Congress.

“All too often schools violate the contractual and constitutional rights of their students in a misguided effort to ‘protect students.’”

Current Hopkins policy gives deans the authority to inform other parties, including parents and police, of any concerns about a dangerous student that come to the attention of the University.

The one exception to this is if such concerns go through the Counseling Center, which, due to patient privacy, is prevented from releasing any information. However, according to the consent statement students must sign when they go there, the Center reserves the right to release information to the necessary persons and agencies if the student is seen as a potential harm to others or themselves.

“This can include, in cases where it is necessary, contacting the police,” said Dennis O’Shea, spokesman for the University.

To deal with campus violence the University’s current policy is that the University may suspend individuals who “threaten or disrupts the conduct of University business” until an assessment of the individual is completed. When dealing with circumstances that need intervention, the University may contact government law enforcement agencies.

The Senate approved the amendment to the 2008 Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Act in October.

If passed, the amendment will force the Department of Education to distribute the updated information to institutions of higher learning within three months after passage. The bill is likely to be included in the appropriations for the Department of Education without much Senate opposition.

A week after the amendment was added to the Department of Education’s appropriations bill, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Guitierrez, outlined a brochure of new guidelines on data sharing, including the threat of dangerous students.

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy (FERPA), students have specific rights when dealing with information that universities have about them, but there are often gray areas. The guidelines from the federal government help in defining the legal boundaries of such rights.

In the guidelines, final disciplinary records may be disclosed if students are alleged to be perpetrators of violent crime or non-forcible sex offence.

It also points out that many colleges and universities have law enforcement units autonomous of the government that may have their own investigative reports and records that are not limited by FERPA. These units have the option of disclosing their information to anyone, even government law enforcement units.

The Department of Education suggests that these records be separate from educational records to protect students’ rights.

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