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Campus Safety Has Improved in Maryland 25 Years After Jeanne Clery’s Brutal Murder

Campus officials struggle with how to handle text alerts when informing students of imminent threats.

Federal legislation resulting from the rape and murder of a college student 25 years ago has made campuses safer, but security remains a challenge, campus police and admissions officials in Maryland said Tuesday.

Tuesday was the 25th anniversary of the death of a Lehigh University student in a case that spurred the Jeanne Clery Act, which requires colleges to report crime statistics.

Many campuses use cell phone text alerts to warn students of security threats, but school safety officials continue to debate how quickly to send alerts without compromising the accuracy of the warnings.

The U.S. Department of Education recently penalized Virginia Tech for its failure to notify students quickly in the 2007 campus shooting in which 33 people were killed. According to the New York Times, the school was fined the maximum allowed, $55,000, for waiting two hours after the shooting began to send out a campus-wide notification.

At the University of Maryland Baltimore County, campus police comply with the Clery Act by sending text alerts to students when there is an imminent threat, said Paul Dillon, deputy chief of UMBC police.

UMBC police have sent out three or four text alerts so far this year, he said, including messages that warned about snowstorms and also about an armed robbery, . No one has been charged in the incident, he said.

Reporting imminent threats is tricky, police said.

“It does present difficulty because you are trying to gather information and you want to get good information to people, and you have to balance the timeliness with accuracy,” Dillon said. “The last thing you want to do is put out information that is incorrect or puts people in harm’s way.”

Nationally, police efforts to report imminent threats on campus have resulted in some bloopers.  

In March, the University of Illinois inadvertently sent out a text message as the system was being updated that warned there was a shooter on campus, according to CBS Chicago.com.

Closer to home, at McDaniel College, text alerts are only sent out during “imminent threats to life safety,” which does not include snow alerts, said Mike Webster, director of campus safety.

“We were concerned if we started to use this for usual business matters, after a time, it would be perceived as the white noise that students get flooded with,” said Webster, who was also among the campus safety experts on the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators who wrote the handbook in the late 1980s instructing police how to comply with the Clery law.

The Clery law went into effect after a fellow student raped and murdered 19-year-old Jeanne Clery in her dorm room at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Admissions officials said parents pay close attention to the crimes that occur on campuses.

“Parents of girls especially ask the question,” said Barbara Greenfeld, Howard  Community College’s associate vice president for enrollment services. “A lot of times, they ask about violent crimes, particularly.”

Also, the Clery laws have triggered more conversations and action about campus safety, officials said.

Greenfeld noted that Howard Community College has both an emergency operations procedure team and a safety committee dedicated to developing ways to keep the campus safe during emergencies.

“Campuses since that act, and as a result of other events along the way, have taken actions to make themselves more secure,” she said.

Parents view crime data as a major factor in college decisions, said Rochelle Hopkins, director of admissions and enrollment management at Montgomery College.

“I think that would be a major deciding factor, especially if you are going to send your child off to another institution, and you are not going to be able to see them every day,” Hopkins said.

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