Low crime rates are a major selling point to prospective students for a small-town school like WSU, compared to schools in more urban areas of Washington like Spokane and Seattle. Since 1990, following the brutal dorm hall rape and murder of Pennsylvania freshman Jeanne Clery, universities are required by the Clery Act to publish accurate crime statistics and provide safety resources annually. This well-intentioned and easily justifiable mandate backfired recently when the federal Department of Education (DOE) ruled to fine WSU $82,500 for violations — an excessive ruling that threatens to defile our reputation as a safe campus. The Huskies are already barking with excitement at an opportunity to ridicule our campus for these unwarranted sanctions.
The allegations against WSU, which the university has already accepted full responsibility for, concern several inaccurately categorized incidents in 2007. One potential rape was recorded as domestic dispute and another was preemptively labeled as “unfounded,” according to the Spokesman Review. In addition, the DOE penalized WSU for failing to publish all required information in its annual report, such as contact information for counseling services. Each violation was met with the maximum fine possible, $27,500. In comparison, the total fines ordered for security failures in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings that left 32 people dead totaled $55,000.
The DOE justifies such severe consequences against universities found in violation with the argument that students who are unaware of dangerous circumstances will be less likely to take appropriate safety measures. This explanation places entirely too much responsibility on universities and not enough on young adults who should be accountable for making their own safe decisions.
With the drastic loss of funding WSU has faced in recent years, monetary sanctions are a completely inappropriate strategy for encouraging schools to promote campus safety. It is not as if the administrators responsible for the mistakes will be covering the fines with their paychecks. The punishment seems even more trivial considering both the university president and the police chief in 2007 no longer work at this institution. Instead, current and future students, the supposed victims of this “crime” according to the DOE, will be forced to foot the bill for an error of classification that occurred before they even enrolled here.
Rather than with fines, sanctions for issues of this nature should instead mandate positive action be taken to prevent their occurrence in the future. WSU should be ordered to revise their policies and procedures to satisfy or exceed the standards of the Clery Act, which is actually what the institution has already voluntarily done. The necessary policies have already been adjusted and according to President Floyd, WSU has “had since 2008, reviews and safeguards in place that include built in double-checks for all criminal reports.”
Last week, all students received an announcement from the Office of the Dean of Students and Health & Wellness Services in their zzusis accounts outlining campus safety resources. I have also already noticed an increased emphasis on students’ responsibility to be aware of campus safety procedures and policies in course syllabi this semester. Combined, these actions demonstrate that President Floyd wants to make his commitment to campus safety known to all faculty and students.
Seattle Times op-ed writer Lynn Varner describes the failure of these fines to match the crime in her recent column, “Feds fine on WSU is excessive.” She writes, “If the federal fine is meant to instill an important lesson, it appears that lesson has been learned.” I cannot help but wonder if the fines have more to do with bringing income to the DOE than teaching our university any important lesson. The DOE logic is flawed and will hopefully unravel during the upcoming appeal process.