Viewpoint — Are schools responsible for crimes on campus?

Many reports during the last week have focused on the lawsuit against Yale University for, as the lawsuit claims, failing to protect its students on campus.

Annie Le, a 24-year-old Yale student in doctoral pharmacology, was murdered on Sept. 13, 2009, five days before she was to be married. She was found on her wedding day, strangled and stuffed upside down in the wall of the Yale laboratory on the New Haven campus, where she helped conduct experiments to find cures for chronic diseases. Raymond Clark III, also a Yale graduate student and an animal research technician at the same lab, was sentenced to 44 years in prison for the murder; his semen and other DNA were found at the crime scene, and he openly apologized for the crime.

The case attracted considerable media coverage. But why has her case recently seen a resurgence in media attention? According to last week’s Associated Press article by Dave Collins, Le’s family is now suing Yale for damages. The lawsuit claims there is a lack of security on the New Haven campus that fosters a dangerous environment for women in particular. The lawsuit also says that Clark had previously shown violent tendencies toward women that should have prompted Yale to take greater security measures concerning him. The same article also reports that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating student claims of the university’s “sexually hostile environment” and its failure to “adequately respond to sexual harassment concerns.” Yale has responded that the lawsuit “serves neither justice nor Annie’s memory,” and that no additional security measures could have prevented the tragedy.

As university students, we all probably have opinions (some of them perhaps gained from firsthand experience) on what level of campus security is needed, not just at Weber State University, but at schools in general. So the question has to be asked — are universities liable for crimes committed on their campuses?

Obviously, each case is different; we have limited knowledge of the Le case, and most of us, unless there are many WSU students who have spent a lot of time at Yale, are probably not qualified to speculate whether the Le family has a legitimate claim. But in theory, let’s say there was a student at any given university with reported violent tendencies. What level do these tendencies need to reach to warrant security attention? Who is reporting them? And what would the appropriate measures be for university administration at that point? Outright expulsion, not to mention arrest, is surely reserved for serious, verifiable offenses. And it just isn’t practical — or constitutional — for an individual’s every move to be dogged by campus police, especially if there isn’t substantial reason to be wary of the individual’s behavior. Sure, maybe not hiring them for jobs in campus buildings, where other students could be alone at times, is somewhere to start, but again, how do we or the university really know if a student deserves that exclusion, unless they’ve indisputably done something to warrant real legal action or exhibited truly worrisome behavior? For all we know, Clark had been cleared of all charges with the university long before Le’s murder, if there were indeed formal charges before that. (Then again, if so, that could very well be one of the examples of weak security the prosecution is talking about.)

Or maybe Yale really could have somehow prevented this senseless tragedy. Who knows? Maybe countless universities could have prevented crimes on their campuses more easily than even they know. Maybe a part of us all even hopes we can point fingers at Yale for this hideous violence. Surely none of us can blame the Le family for feeling let down by the university, whether or not their case turns out to be founded, and our hearts go out to them and victims of violence everywhere. But, whether or not that particular university was lax in some way, we as students should at least remember that university security cannot be accountable for everything that happens on campus, and that tragedies do happen that are beyond any of our control.