- UVA students were alerted to assaults on campus, eventually (Photo: Associated Press)
At 1:15 a.m. on Sept. 17, a University of Virginia student was sexually assaulted while walking to her home near campus. Two days later, another UVA student was attacked at a university fraternity house. It took the university 11 days to alert the campus to those crimes.
Last night, UVA associate vice president Allen W. Groves sent an e-mail to the campus community providing information on the attacks from earlier this month. Federal Law requires UVA to do just that. According to the Clery Act, if a crime poses an ongoing “threat to students and employees,” schools are required to report those crimes through “timely warnings” that will “aid in the prevention of similar occurrences.”
When it comes to sexual assault, how quickly is "timely"?
That's a decision largely left to the discretion of the university. And according to UVA media relations director Marian Anderfuren, the week-and-a-half delay was necessary given the scant facts available to the school at the time. "The University has not been sitting on its hands since Sept. 17 not knowing about this," Anderfuren told me. "The question was when to pull the trigger on a message like this. We didn't want to send something out based on rumor or innuendo, and we didn’t want to wait too long. We sent the alert when we had enough reasonably good, solid information about the situation."
Groves ultimately pulled the trigger at about 10:30 p.m. yesterday evening in an e-mail sent to 22,000 members of the UVA campus community. In the message, Groves laid out a potential pattern of attacks: "Based on the description in each of these two cases, police have reason to believe that the perpetrator (or perpetrators) blends in well with the student community," Groves wrote. "It is also possible that he was lurking in each area before the attacks, observing potential victims." Groves also alerted students to an unrelated bias-related assault from Sept. 18.
The two possibly related attacks appear to fit the Clery Act's "ongoing threat to students." But according to the university, UVA wasn't clear on the extent of that threat until recently. "It took time to piece it all together. For several days, we weren’t sure if there had been only one incident or two incidents. There's still a lot of information we don’t know," says Anderfuren. "One of the students hasn’t made a police report. The other is only getting ready now to feel like she can talk about it." Because the victim in the Sept. 19 attack didn't report to the police, the university was first alerted to the assault through "rumor," and was only later able to confirm the facts of the crime.
The possible pattern of attacks may only have crystallized recently. But the university was aware of at least one sexual assault on campus shortly after the fact: The Sept. 17 sexual assault victim did report her crime to police, and her assailant has not yet been apprehended. Is that enough of an "ongoing threat" to justify a more immediate response?
"There are certain justifications for delaying a timely warning," explains Jonathan Kassa, executive director of Security On Campus, Inc. Ensuring timely crime alerts is a major issue for SOC, which was instrumental in passing the Clery Act in 1990. "Lack of information can be a legitimate justification in a school's decision to warn or not warn," Kassa says. "Schools need to investigate to see if a crime is legitimate or not, or to figure out all the pieces of the puzzle for establishing a pattern."
At the same time, "there are many examples where simply stating 'ongoing investigation' is not enough, especially if the threat is not mitigated," Kassa says. "If there is an ongoing threat, and particularly if there is a pattern, the campus community should be notified as soon as possible."
When it comes to a situation like UVA's, where complete information on the crime isn't readily available and a pattern isn't immediately apparent, "it's hard to pass judgment immediately as to whether a school was slow to pick something up," Kassa says. "It sounds like there was a sincere attempt to be proactive and alert the campus community. But there are concerns as to why it might take 11 days to do so. . . there's nothing barring a school from going above and beyond, which many schools now do."