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.
While state officials insist they can’t enforce a 2008 law enacted to keep college students safe, they say the one-person office charged with helping schools comply with the statute plays a vital role.
Passed in the wake of deadly shootings at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech, the Illinois Campus Security Enhancement Act requires nearly 200 higher education institutions across the state to develop emergency plans and create safety teams, as well as take other action.
Few of Illinois’ higher education institutions are following the law, says the man who served as the state’s first campus security coordinator.
“Of the private schools, I’d have to say that 90 percent of them are not in compliance,” Roy Garcia said, noting that some of the public institutions have done a better job of complying. “I’d have to say probably 75 percent of community colleges have sent in a plan.”
“Now that doesn’t mean they’ve all been approved, but they’ve sent in plans.”
Garcia said because the law contains no penalties it’s hard for state officials to force colleges and universities to follow it.
Illinois’ current campus security coordinator, Gretchen Jarrett, says she can do her job with or without the power to fine or otherwise punish schools that are out of compliance.
“You can still get these things accomplished with the law the way it is,” Jarrett said. “You don’t have to have a law in place for it to be effective. People will still write plans, and I can do my job either way.”
“The position is needed, but enforcement needs to go with the position,” he said.
The Illinois Terrorism Task Force appointed Garcia in November 2010, nearly two years after the law took effect.
The position was considered temporary, Garcia said, and he was paid $25 an hour for a total of 900 hours, or $22,500. He left the position in October, just shy of his one-year anniversary and three months after he started a full-time job as district director of safety and security at City Colleges of Chicago.
Garcia said the funding ran out in April but he kept assisting schools anyway.
Laura Kunard, director of the Center for Public Safety and Justice, sought to make the position permanent by getting a grant from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, said Thomas Hardy, executive director of university relations for the University of Illinois. Jarrett was hired to succeed Garcia at $50,000 a year, with her salary paid for by the grant.
Jarrett started working as state campus security coordinator in August, two-and-a-half months before Garcia left, so he was able to train and help with the transition. He officially left his state position Oct. 15, though he began his new job at City Colleges of Chicago July 18.
With Garcia now working full time at City Colleges, Jarrett is again the only person responsible for helping 189 colleges and universities develop their emergency and safety plans, conduct annual training and comply with other parts of the law.
There is no support staff, although Jarrett says she doesn’t need the help.
“No, it’s fine . . . I used to have 102 counties that I worked with,” said Jarrett, who wrote weather-related emergency plans for the state before becoming its campus safety coordinator.
Jarrett said she spends much of her time working on a template for schools to follow when devising their emergency plans.
“The template will be ready by the first of the year and will go out to all institutions,” Jarrett said. “I am hoping the template will help schools if they don’t have plans.”
“I can’t say if schools aren’t following the law; there’s no way to keep track of that,” Jarrett said.
That can be frustrating for college officials, who say they’re doing their best to follow yet another unfunded mandate from the state.
“I’m as close as I can be. But there’s no one that’s out there to tell me if I am,” Chuck Adam, director of security at Illinois Wesleyan University, says about the plan his school has come up with and posted online.
Adam, whose school does appear to be in compliance, said the state has to take responsibility.
“I’m making a good faith effort,” he said, “but I’m open for suggestions of improvement.”
Reporter Sarah J. Pawlowski 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.