Colleges Ponder Keeping Eye on Students' Records

Schools push for better info on students' arrests

By DENA POTTER
|  Sunday, May 23, 2010  |  Updated 12:45 PM EDT
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Colleges Ponder Keeping Eye on Students' Records

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University officials still reeling from the death of a Virginia student-athlete want a better system to tell them when students are arrested off campus, though authorities warn any changes could prove costly and difficult to enforce.

University of Virginia President John Casteen said he would push for greater notification requirements following the May 3 discovery
of 22-year-old Yeardley Love's battered body in her Charlottesville apartment. Police have arrested another 22-year-old UVA student-athlete, George Huguely, and charged him with first-degree murder. Both played lacrosse for the school.

Casteen said he would seek the change because university officials were never told of Huguely's November 2008 arrest in Lexington, Va., on charges of public intoxication and resisting arrest. The arresting officer's report said Huguely had threatened to kill her and a female probation officer, and he had to be subdued with a stun gun.

If school officials had known about that arrest, Casteen said they might have been able discipline Huguely and keep a closer eye on him. Instead, he said the incident highlighted not just a gap in the law, but "a hole you can drive a truck through."

Most schools get information on student arrests from their local police departments, but they rarely hear about incidents that happen outside that immediate area.

Campus safety advocates said if Casteen's efforts are successful, Virginia would be the first state to enact a law requiring police to report off-campus arrests of students to colleges and universities.

But law enforcement officials and some campus safety experts say such a law would be complicated and costly. They question what steps would be required to verify if a suspect was a student, either halfway across the state or halfway across the nation.

"If somebody's a hardened criminal, they're not likely to be truthful if they feel like that's going to get them kicked out of school," said Delores Stafford, former police chief at George Washington University and a Delaware campus safety consultant.

Civil rights advocates question whether the notification is a violation of privacy. Others doubt the benefit of being notified of every case of public intoxication or drunken driving, especially before the student is convicted.

Each year, an estimated 110,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are arrested for an alcohol-related violation, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Meanwhile, there were 55 homicides on the nation's college campuses and the surrounding areas -- which include sidewalks, streets and properties like fraternity houses -- in 2008, according to crime statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Education. Those numbers do not include incidents at off-campus residences and businesses.

Casteen acknowledges he wouldn't have known about Huguely's threatening behavior simply based on his arrests. He would have had to read the police report or talk to the officer involved, something that would become less likely if every arrest were reported to the school.

Still, those who support Casteen say even if Huguely's arrest would not have raised a red flag, it would have provided information.

"Sitting where I sit, I would rather have even a yellow flag to at least be able to look into it," said Kent Smith, vice president for student affairs at Ohio University.

Three years ago, Smith and other officials at the Athens, Ohio, university started writing letters to schools whose students were arrested at in-town, off-campus parties and events. Smith writes between 20 and 40 letters each year when local police notify the university that they've arrested a student from another school.

"Sometimes a student just made a bad choice somewhere else, but in other cases it might be representative of a young person who is in serious difficulty," Smith said.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said he would consult with law enforcement before deciding whether to support Casteen's push for legislation, but he agreed the information could be useful for school leaders. The two have agreed to discuss possible changes.

Supporters say they hope the obstacles won't prevent both sides from reaching a compromise.

"We shouldn't be afraid of talking about it just because there are a lot of details to work out," said Jonathan Kassa, executive director of Security On Campus, a Pennsylvania-based campus security organization.

The group supports notification for arrests on serious offenses such as assaults or rapes, and conviction of other offenses. If a law is enacted, though, the group urges it be done on a national level.

The U.S. Department of Education has not taken a position on the issue, spokeswoman Jane Glickman said.

Huguely is being held without bond. Police are investigating whether there had been previous altercations between he and Love, including one report that they argued at a bar the day before she was found dead.

Huguely told police they had been in a relationship that had recently ended.

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