U.S. House passes bill to require colleges to release more safety information

Amendments to Clery Act would require schools to issue warnings about emergencies on campus within 30 minutes

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill that would require colleges and universities to release more campus safety information and issue public warnings within 30 minutes of a threat or emergency.

The College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 is a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, a law that sets the conditions schools must meet in order to get federal funds. The several hundred-page bill, H.R. 4137, contains a number of sections that address campus safety, including amendments to the federal Jeanne Clery Act. That law requires colleges and universities receiving federal funds to report certain crime statistics annually and make them publicly available. Schools also must issue "timely warnings" in the event of an emergency or a threat to the campus community.

The House bill passed 354-58. If signed into law, it would add four new criminal offenses that colleges must include in their annual statistics: intimidation; larceny-theft; destruction, damage or vandalism of property; and simple assault.

The bill also specifies that schools must notify their communities of threats to the health and safety of students and faculty within 30 minutes. This is in contrast to the Clery Act's current language, which merely states that a notice must be "timely" but does not set a specific time limit.

This legislation comes in the wake of campus crimes such as the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, in which student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 students and faculty. Cho killed two students in a dorm at about 7:15 a.m., but the campus was not notified of the incident until only minutes before Cho's second shooting spree -- in which he shot and killed 30 more people -- began at 9:45 a.m.

The House bill's primary sponsor is Rep. George Miller, (D-Calif.), chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor.

On Feb. 5, family members of Virginia Tech victims, in conjunction with Security On Campus, an advocacy group for campus safety, sent a letter to Miller and Rep. Howard McKeon, the committee's ranking Republican. In the letter, they said the provision to require schools to release a notice of emergency within 30 minutes would "serve as a living memorial to our children." The letter also urged Miller and McKeon to stand in "strong opposition" to any attempt to weaken this rule.

The bill's amendments to the Clery Act would require colleges to develop policies outlining emergency response and evacuation procedures, which could include electronic and cellular communications as methods to notify the campus.

Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security On Campus, said the proposed bill would require colleges to test these emergency response procedures once per year.

In addition, the bill would require that universities publish annual fire safety reports, similar to the current reports on crimes that occur on or near campus. Required statistics would include information such as the number of fires that occurred on campus, what caused them, and the number of fire-related deaths that have occurred a given institution.

"The good news for the student press is that it increases the release of information that is newsworthy because it is about safety," said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center.

The bill mandates that the Department of Education clarify its guidelines on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 to specify when college and university officials may share information about students who demonstrate a significant risk to themselves or to others on campus.

After the incident at Virginia Tech, it came to light that Cho was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety disorder. Cho had a history of exhibiting potentially threatening behavior in the classroom and his academic writings.

The White House Wednesday released a statement opposing several portions of the bill, but not any of the safety-related provisions.

The bill now moves to the Senate to be debated.

news, Virginia Tech, Washington D.C.