How I Got Involved In Campus Safety As A Student Activist

Safe Campuses Now’s student activists regularly appeared in the news media to drive the discussion about campus safety at the
Safe Campuses Now’s student activists regularly appeared in the news media to drive the discussion about campus safety at the University of Tennessee.

Working this last month with Students Against House Bill 51 at the Georgia state Capitol has reminded me of my own time as a student activist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) in the early 1990s. For me the first impetus go get involved happened during my senior year in high school with the murder at UTK of Tommy Baer in 1988, the boyfriend of a classmate of mine. My first work on campus safety came through the Student Government Association, where I served on the Student Senate, the Campus Safety Committee, and a University task force to suggest improvements to the campus police department.

Then on February 20, 1991 I skipped my philosophy class to eat lunch, and was watching the NBC News program “A Closer Look” which was focusing on campus crime shortly after the murder of Yale University student Christian Prince. One of the segments was an interview with Dana Getzinger a University of Georgia (UGA) student who along with her family had founded an organization called Safe Campuses Now (SCN). They offered campus area crime tracking, a housing rating system, educational programs, public policy, and a community crime patrol. I immediately recognized these as programs that could also benefit UTK, and later that day reached out directly to them to discuss bringing the programs to Tennessee.

Shortly thereafter SCN also connected me with noted victims’ rights attorney Frank Carrington, then counsel to Security On Campus, Inc. (SOC) the national non-profit campus safety organization founded by Connie and Howard Clery after the murder of their daughter Jeanne at Lehigh University in 1986. Our SGA team had already been involved with an effort to free campus police reports from being kept private under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) something Mr. Carrington was working on as well. We successfully secured a change to this law in 1992. He also brought us in on the initiative to develop and pass the Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights, which Congress enacted in 1992.

On Saturday, April 27, 1991 the SGA Campus Safety Committee held the first SCN meeting with Dana Getzinger’s father Jim. For the next three and a half years SCN operated campus safety programs with me as the student director and numerous student volunteers pitching in. The “Newswatch” program tracked crime on and around campus, and in the pre-world-wide web era was shared on campus via posters, and faxed to offices across campus. The student housing survey tracked the safety of off-campus housing. The speakers’ bureau tackled everything from “date-rape” (a new term at the time) to DUI and self-defense classes. In our last year we also operated the Fort Sanders Crime Patrol.

What most reminded me of this time working with Students Against House Bill 51 was SCN’s lobbying of the Tennessee General Assembly to develop and enact the “Safe Campuses Reporting Act”. The bill required a public campus crime log, a priority of SOC, and the tracking of crimes against students, a concept initially developed by SCN at UGA. Our team would often pile in a van at 5:30 AM to make the roughly three-hour drive to the Capitol in Nashville. We would lobby our legislators to support our bill, deal with changes sought by colleges and universities, and drive focus on the issue in the news media. Governor Ned McWherter signed the bill into law on May 17, 1993. This last month, in retrospect what amazes me the most is we were able to pull this off before students had cell phones, and social media. All we had was the fax machine I’d begged my Mom to buy for us, and a lot of willpower.

As laws, at both the state and federal level, improved, and institutional campus safety challenges were better addressed, student interest at UTK in SCN eventually waned. The last meeting at UTK was held on November 9, 1994. A final “Safe Campuses Now Newswatch” crime summary was published on April 19, 1995 by Students Against Campus Crime at UTK, the officially recognized student organization affiliated with SCN. SCN continued to operate at UGA until 2009.

Safe Campuses Now’s first meeting at UTK in 1991, and receiving the Jeanne Clery Campus Safety Award in 1994.
Safe Campuses Now’s first meeting at UTK in 1991, and receiving the Jeanne Clery Campus Safety Award in 1994.

On May 20, 1994 SOC honored both Dana Getzinger and me, a week after my graduation, as the first recipients of the Jeanne Clery Campus Safety Award along with Thomas Jefferson University. The Clerys would offer me a job with SOC as well, something I initially turned down as I didn’t want to leave the south. Connie Clery kept calling with projects for me to work on remotely though. I eventually went to work for SOC later in 1994 handling public policy and victim advocacy, and remained there through 2012 when I moved on to the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative, a project created by the families of the victims and survivors of the April 16, 2007 shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech.

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