School crime data is kept in the shadows

Prep school hiding sick tradition?
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Prep school hiding sick tradition? 02:14

Story highlights

  • St. Paul's school case alleges long-time tradition of "senior salutes" involving illicit sex
  • Holloway: Schools should have an obligation to report publicly on history of crime at their facilities

Philip Holloway, a CNN legal analyst, is a criminal defense lawyer who heads his own firm in Cobb County, Georgia. A former prosecutor and adjunct professor of criminal justice, he is former president of the Cobb County Bar Association's criminal law section. Follow him on Twitter: @PhilHollowayEsq Megan W. Grout, who is of counsel to Holloway's law office, contributed to this article. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

(CNN)Many who are interested in legal news have been following the trial of 19-year-old Owen Labrie, a graduate of the prestigious St. Paul's school in Concord, New Hampshire. He is on trial for, among other things, the alleged rape of a 15-year-old freshman at the school.

Philip Holloway
The incident was allegedly prompted by a long-standing school tradition called the "senior salute" where seniors attempt to have sexual encounters with younger students as part of some sick contest. The defense claims these "senior salutes" involve hugging or kissing, while the prosecution claims they are something far more sinister. The defendant admitted to police that students kept track of their conquests on a wall in the school. The school continuously painted over the scoreboard, but that apparently did little to deter participation in the contest. The accuser said that she initially told a nurse and others that the encounter was consensual.
Regardless of the verdict of this trial, the case shines light on the shadowy world of school crime -- particularly high school crime.
    If 18-year-old St. Paul's students are "traditionally" seeking out sexual encounters with 15-year olds, there is a broader issue here that has escaped media attention. It is implausible to believe Labrie's case is the first time, since girls were admitted to St. Paul's in 1971, that one of these "senior salutes" may have resulted in a sex crime against a minor.
    Have there been other rapes or assaults reported at St. Paul's School as a result of senior salutes? This is a question that many must now be asking, yet the school's proctor declined to address questions about the "tradition." Indeed all parents, not just those who pay $52,000 a year for an elite private school, have a right to information about crime at their child's school.
    Presumably, the best way to find those answers would be to look up the recent crime statistics on that particular school -- but you won't find that information easily. In fact, you may not find it at all. No secondary or elementary school, private or public, is federally required to report its crime statistics.
    The same is not true for most private or public colleges. In 1990, Congress passed the Clery Act, which "requires all colleges and universities who receive federal funding to share information about crime on campus and their efforts to improve campus safety as well as inform the public of crime in or around campus." The law was named for Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student, who was raped and murdered in her dorm room in 1986. When her parents sued Lehigh it was revealed that there were 38 prior violent crimes on Lehigh's campus in only three years AND that those crimes were not reported to the student body. Her parents maintained that if they had known the level of crime occurring at Lehigh, their daughter might not have attended that university.
    Through the Clery Act, the public now has easy access to crime statistics at over 11,000 college campuses. While the Act has its detractors and it does not provide details on the crimes, the benefit of putting at least some information in the hands of the public, and forcing greater accountability in school officials, far outweighs the fear that some may not fully understand the statistics as some detractors suggest.
    Why did the Federal government acknowledge the need to ensure colleges are forthcoming about the safety on campus through the Clery Act, but yet find no such need for similar mandatory reporting to protect the 55.1 million students in grades K-12? For parents of most young students, the only easily-accessible information they can get right now is broad statistics from the Department of Education about school violence trends across the country, which rely mostly on limited surveys and not actual crime reports.
    Many states do have laws requiring schools to report crimes to their Superintendent or state Department of Education. However, accessing data for a particular school is certainly not easy for parents (if it is available at all), and may require filing formal written requests through district legal departments. In some instances, school systems take it upon themselves to provide this data to their parents, but those examples are few and far between.
    This murky process for obtaining specific crime information for K-12 schools is in stark contrast to the college crime data made readily available by the Clery Act to anyone with an internet connection. This is not to say a federal mandate is the only way to solve this problem. If school districts were more forthcoming on their own (even just through reports on their websites), there would be no need for a federal law. However, in the 25 years since the Clery Act passed, no meaningful changes have appeared on the horizon at the federal, state or district level.
    The difficulty in obtaining this information puts parents at a serious disadvantage when choosing schools for their young children and when seeking to hold school administrators accountable after a crime has occurred. If your daughter was raped in a poorly lit school parking lot, obvious legal questions would include: did the school know of the dangerous lighting condition in the school parking lot? How many other similar incidents occurred? If similar incidents occurred, why didn't the school correct the dangerous situation long ago?
    Access to crime statistics, or ideally reports with more detail, would go a long way to help answer those questions and encourage accountability on the front end. This could be achieved without revealing students' identifying information, in keeping with federal privacy requirements. Ready access to crime information also allows parents, and other school stakeholders, to monitor crime trends at their school and advocate for solutions.
    In the Labrie case, would the alleged victim's family have selected a different school for their 15-year-old if they had seen crime information similar to that which Jeanne Clery's parents received after her murder? If -- or rather when -- the St. Paul's alleged victim files suit against the school, there's no doubt the issue of whether the school ignored the ongoing dangers of "senior salutes" will be hotly contested.
    Without easy public access to this essential information, dangerous conditions and traditions remain unchecked. School officials escape accountability on the most important job they have: keeping children safe. Since our kids spend most of their waking hours at these campuses, the lack of easy access to crime information is absolutely unacceptable.
    It's time for public and private secondary schools to make their crime information easily available to the public, just like colleges and communities around the country already do. If it prevents the rape of one child, it's worth it.