Every year millions of students go through the process of visiting, applying to, and finally choosing a college or university to attend. Many factors are taken into account during the decision process such as the cost of tuition, location, campus size, and the types of majors offered.
Parents also want to know that their children are moving into a safe environment. Students who are leaving the security of their parents home may be unaware of the myriad of crimes they can fall victim to – theft, robbery, sexual assault, or even murder.
Sadly, recent years have seen horrific crimes committed on campuses which can be intensified by mistakes made by school officials.
The Virginia Tech Massacre
On April 16th, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, decided to commit mass murder by fatally wounding thirty-two people and injuring seventeen others.
Cho began his massacre in West Ambler Johnston Hall where he shot and killed two students. He then returned to his room, removed the hard drive from his computer, and mailed a video and letter to NBC News. While he was completing these acts, the police were mistakenly looking for a different suspect – the boyfriend of one of the victims.
Cho then went to Norris hall where he chose several classrooms to open fire in. By the end of his rampage which lasted less than twelve minutes, Cho had killed another thirty people and wounded eighteen more. He then took his own life before the police arrived.
The Virginia Tech shooting was the largest mass murder by a single shooter in the history of the United States.
A state panel criticized decisions made by school officials during the shooting, saying that if the university had responded differently by informing the campus of the earlier killings, additional lives could have been saved. Two hours passed between the first shooting and the second. During those hours, the campus had not been put on lockdown, nor had professors and students been notified of the murders.
On June 17th, 2008, families of twenty-four of the victims and all eighteen of the victims who were injured, agreed to an $11 million settlement from the state of Virginia. The settlement also set non-monetary agreements including lifelong healthcare for the injured students and occasional meetings between the governor, the university, and the families to discuss legislation and improvements made in security on campuses.
Legal Obligations of Colleges and Universities
Jeanne Clery Act
The Jeanne Clery Act is a law that was passed in 1990 requiring all colleges and universities that receive federal funding to create crime reports. These reports need to provide information on the crimes committed on campus and efforts made to inform the public of the crimes on or around campus.
It also requires that the institution provide options such as transportation, academic support, change in living situations, and assistance in notifying local law enforcement for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, or other assaults.
Finally, institutions must review the facts of each incident that does occur to determine if a timely warning or emergency notification was provided to the campus community.
The information provided in each report is made public and can be found through the university’s annual security report.
Just like the landlords of apartment buildings, the school is responsible under premises liability laws for providing a reasonably safe environment for the students living inside of the dorms. This means that the school needs to take steps to prevent foreseeable crimes, like theft. In New York, all doors entering into an individual unit must have a deadbolt and chain lock. All windows also need to have a window lock and ground level windows are required to have a window guard.
Although not required by law, the majority of colleges and universities have taken security in their dormitories seriously and also require students have an access card that they must swipe so that no one can enter unless they live in the building.
“The Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting” has also been published to provide schools information on how they can improve campus security.
Legal Rights of Victims
If you or a loved one have been the victim of a crime on a college or university campus, it may be possible to pursue a civil lawsuit against the school if the school has been negligent. Our crime victim lawyers can help you determine if you have grounds for a lawsuit in a free consultation.