This campus safety investigation won 3rd place in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Region 5 Mark of Excellence Awards. The conference is in Indianapolis April 13-14, 2012.
Just a handful of the 63 higher education institutions in Cook County appear to be following a law that requires all Illinois colleges and universities to adopt safety policies and procedures meant to keep students safe.
The Illinois Campus Security Enhancement Act, approved unanimously by the Illinois General Assembly just weeks after the Northern Illinois University shootings, requires nearly 200 colleges and universities across the state to develop violence prevention and all-hazards emergency response plans, as well as campus violence prevention committees and threat assessment teams.
The plans must be prepared in partnership with the school’s county or major municipal emergency response agency – in Cook County, that’s the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications – and training must be held at least once a year.
But it may not matter that schools are breaking the law since state officials say they don’t have the power to enforce it.
Almost three years after the law took effect, just one full-time employee is charged with helping 189 colleges and universities develop and implement the safety plans. And no one performed this job until November 2010 – nearly two years after the law took effect.
That’s when the Illinois Terrorism Task Force appointed Roy Garcia as the state’s first campus security coordinator. Less than a year later he accepted a new job as district director of safety and security with City Colleges of Chicago.
Before leaving his state post earlier this fall, Garcia vowed to continue assisting his replacement on a part-time basis, “till I’m satisfied that we have made this program what it was intended to be.”
Garcia told ChicagoTalks reporters in September that about 90 percent of private colleges and universities statewide – more than 100 – are not fully complying with the law.
“The unfortunate thing about the Campus Security Enhancement Act is that there really is no teeth for any type of enforcement,” he said.
The only action the state’s campus security coordinator can take, Garcia said, is to send letters to the schools informing them whether they are compliant, partially compliant or not compliant at all. During that September interview, Garcia said letters were being drafted, blaming the delay on Illinois’ budget woes.
But two months later, the woman who succeeded Garcia and who was present during the September interview, told ChicagoTalks reporters the letters will never be sent because nobody has the power to enforce the law.
“The letters never existed,” said Campus Security Coordinator Gretchen Jarrett.
“We’re not reviewing plans for compliance because we don’t have the authority to say whether someone is in compliance with the law or not. There aren’t letters because we can’t review (them).”
After the September interview, Jarrett said she talked with her boss, Laura Kunard, director of the Center for Public Safety and Justice at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Kunard said she consulted with Illinois Terrorism Task Force’s legal counsel who told her the law can’t be enforced.
That doesn’t sound right to one legal analyst.
“Just because it doesn’t say who can enforce, doesn’t mean the law isn’t a law and shouldn’t be followed,” said Terry Sullivan, a legal analyst for WGN and president of The Sullivan Law Firm.
“No, it doesn’t mean no one can enforce it . . . but that begs the question, who can?”
Sullivan said anyone – a citizen, a community group or even Jarrett herself – could ask a court to enforce the law.
Jarrett said she has not sought a court order requesting enforcement: “I’m not allowed to lobby as a state employee. I’m supposed to work with what we have.”
Patti Thompson, communications manager for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, which funds the campus security coordinator position, said she thinks her agency is going “above and beyond” what the law requires.
“The position was meant to be an assistance … because we do not have the authority (to enforce) … this isn’t anything the law required us to do,” Thompson said.
Officials working for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan declined to discuss the law and what if any action the state’s top law-enforcement office might take against the dozens of schools that appear to be out of compliance.
“We’re obviously committed to ensuring that college students throughout the state of Illinois are safe and protected from violence,” said press secretary Robyn Ziegler, declining to comment further.
The office of Gov. Pat Quinn also declined to answer questions about whether the governor is aware so few schools appear to be following the law and what if any actions the administration plans to take.
Some lawmakers plan to take action.
which he serves, and the Illinois Board of Higher Education when he learned schools aren’t following the law.
“What about all of the students? What about faculty? What about all these people we’re trying to keep safe? Just because they found a loophole in the law, that they don’t have to comply, to me that’s irresponsible,” he said.
“I’d hate to have a stick over colleges and universities,” Millner said, adding he thinks there may have to be some strict enforcement with sanctions for schools that don’t comply.
Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Hinckley), one of the 12 lawmakers who co-sponsored the bill creating the law, said it’s up to students to hold schools accountable.
“Students should be concerned about this,” Pritchard said. “Most schools have student senates. Why don’t they ask the question? Most schools have student newspapers. Why don’t they investigate? There are classes in public administration and public safety. Why aren’t they asking the questions as concerned students?”
But other legislators placed the blame on universities and colleges.
“What I find appalling is that this bill was in response to the Northern Illinois University shootings. I would think schools would want to have plans in place,” said Rep. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet), another co-sponsor of Senate Bill 2691.
Rose said he thinks having the required plans should be “common sense” and isn’t convinced that so many schools are breaking the law.
“If it’s true (schools don’t have plans), how stupid can you be? Why on earth wouldn’t you have these things in place?” Rose said.
It’s impossible to determine for sure whether schools are following the law because government officials refused to provide information or said they weren’t collecting any to begin with.
ChicagoTalks reporters requested documents under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act that could show which schools are following the law, but state and local agencies denied the requests.
Separately, ChicagoTalks reporters contacted, often repeatedly, every public and private, two-and four-year college and university in Cook County, and determined that 11 schools appear to be violating the law, while 45 schools provided conflicting or incomplete information – or no information at all. That leaves just 7 in compliance.
Many schools did not reply to phone calls and e-mails; some seemed afraid to answer questions about the law and concerned about admitting they weren’t following it; and others refused to talk at all.
But officials at some schools spoke freely.
“We try to comply,” said Bruno Bondavalli, dean of academic and student affairs at St. Augustine College.
Bondavalli said he’s not sure if his school is following the law. Like other higher education institutions, his independent, nonprofit college had to hire consultants to review the current plans and assist them in making changes.
“We just have to wait and see what recommendations they come up with,” Bondavalli said.
He thinks his school, a commuter campus, with a small, mature student population, is safe: “You yell, and everyone hears you all over the place.”
Officials at other schools say their campuses are safe, too, despite not having the state-mandated plans in place.
Tina Porter, senior director of student services and communications at Meadville-Lombard Theological School, said given the nature of her institution, her school doesn’t have troubled students.
Other schools that appear to be following the law expressed concerns about not knowing for sure whether they were in compliance and complained about getting little if any assistance from state officials.
“Columbia College is as compliant as they know how to be,” said Martha Meegan, director of
campus safety and security at Columbia College Chicago.
“I don’t believe anybody is in full compliance. It’s not because they’re not trying. There are so many laws out there, and they all change. So it’s very difficult for institutions to be on top of it,” said Meegan, who served on the Illinois Campus Security Task Force, whose recommendations paved the way for the law.
She said schools must contend with lack of state funding, noting at least one staff member at every institution is needed to keep track of all the federal, state and local laws affecting colleges and universities.
“It’s a lot to be asking institutions without providing the funding,” Meegan said.
As schools struggle to implement policies required by a law that isn’t being enforced, some question whether it’s even effective at keeping students safe.
Virginia passed a similar law after the Virginia Tech massacre, which left 33 dead. The 2008
Valentine’s Day shootings at Northern Illinois University, just 10 months later, resulted in six more deaths on a college campus, underscoring the urgency for lawmakers in both states to protect students and staff.
Gene Deisinger, deputy chief of police and director of threat management services at Virginia Tech, said it’s difficult to determine whether laws that require emergency plans have made students safer since some schools already had the procedures in place.
Northern Illinois University was one of those schools that took action before it had to.
“We have an all-hazard incident plan. We have a campus emergency operation plan … Ours was in place for years before this act came out,” said Sgt. Alan Smith, public information officer for NIU’s Police Department.
While having plans will not prevent all future acts of violence, some think it’s worth a try.
“We’ve seen results,” said Dave Martino, director of security at The John Marshall Law School.
Martino said the school has built relationships with students they’ve helped as part of the safety procedures.
“I wish we would have done it a long time ago.”
Reporters Elizabeth Beyer, Ellyn Fortino, Mario Lekovic, Matt Manetti and Blair Mishleau contributed.
Other stories in the series:
A grant funded by The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and awarded by the Chicago Headline Club helped cover the costs of reporting this story. This story is part of a collaboration with the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium, which includes Midwest university journalism professors and students working on news projects in the public interest. The consortium is supported by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.