Note: the next series of alerts will focus on issues discussed at SPJ's National Convention in Crystal City, Va.
Campus crime could be the best kept secret of university administrators.
Getting access to those reports is now the number one call for help to the Student Press Law Center, said Executive Director Mark Goodman.
In 1990, Congress made it a requirement for schools to report crime statistic--the first ever national standard.
But some schools began to channel crime reports through a secret campus disciplinary process and away from local law enforcement.
"There are still many criminal incidents occurring on campus the public never knows about. As a result, more people do become victims of crime," he said.
"We have had a tendency to vilify those who run these disciplinary proceedings. We're guilty, too, in not being fair in our coverage. Their secrecy breeds our mistrust," said Goodman.
Bill Kibler, immediate past president of the Association for Student Judicial Affairs, said anytime a crime occurs on campus it should be referred for prosecution.
"However, a college or university has the right and obligation to enforce its own standards. There's federal law that protects students, a statutory right to privacy. Disciplinary records are covered by that," Kibler said.
In a complaint of sexual assault, Kibler said colleges have the responsibility to respond immediately with a disciplinary hearing because the criminal justice system moves so slowly.
A student accused of sexual assault could be barred from campus through such an administrative proceeding quicker than the time it takes for a criminal trial, he said.
Kibler said a school's first responsibility should be to guarantee campus safety.
S. Daniel Carter, regional vice president for a victim rights group called Security on Campus, said many schools are under investigation for failing to report crime statistics accurately.
"Without a victim or a survivor coming forward, we would never know. We need a uniform standard," Carter said.
Carolyn Carlson testified before Congress on behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists lobbying in support of a measure to open campus crime logs this year.
Carlson, who founded the Campus Courts Task Force, said the society believes that all campus disciplinary proceedings should be open when tied to criminal activity.
Kibler said he supports the open campus crime logs legislation. But he doesn't feel disciplinary proceedings should be open.
"I'll never trust a system of justice that is secret," said Goodman. "What these (administrators) are asking us to do is trust them."
The Department of Education was also roundly criticized by some panelists for creating additional confusion instead of clarifying requirements of the law.
Kibler said campuses that don't comply are usually held accountable through lawsuits.
Carlson said student journalists aren't waiting on Congress to act. They are filing lawsuits for access.
A successful lawsuit was brought by The Red & Black, the student newspaper at the University of Georgia in Athens. Student journalists who investigated the proceedings said they discovered a two-tiered disciplinary process.
The paper found that discipline administered by peers was harsher than discipline administered by faculty members. After publication of the article, students began asking for faculty-only hearings.
The stories resulted in a change in the process, said Editor-Reporter Crystal J. Paulk. Hearings are now conducted by one faculty member and three student peers.
(The Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, the educational arm of SPJ, has helped fund the updated publication of "Covering Campus Crime: A Handbook for Journalists." Copies are available by writing the Student Press Law Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Suite 1910, Arlington, Va., 22209, or calling the organization at 703-807-1904.)(e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org)