As college kids across the country resume classes this fall, advocates highlight the importance of safety on campus during September – National Campus Safety Awareness Month (NCSAM). Throughout the month, advocates and higher education institutions participate in activities that encourage a public conversation about important safety topics, including violence prevention. It is the public manifestation of the Clery Act, one law that helps regulate campus security.
The Clery Act mandates that colleges and universities receiving federal funding provide a public annual security report (ASR) to employees and students every Oct. 1 and must include data about campus crime for the previous three calendar years, as well as information about efforts taken to improve campus safety. It was enacted in 1990 in honor of Jeanne Clery who was raped and murdered in her college dorm in 1986 and is intended to provide transparency about campus security.
Additionally, higher education institutions, similar to other establishment owners, are also governed by premises liability law. The law requires establishment owners to ensure the premises are reasonably safe and secure from anticipated dangers. If establishment owners fail to take reasonable safety measures they risk exposing guests to violent acts, such as shootings, fights, stabbings, or other physical violence (including sexual assault) where severe injury or death can occur. When this happens, the establishment owner, as well as those contractors charged with security, may be held responsible for the injuries suffered by individuals or groups of individuals on the premises.
Campus security involves more than the active shooter scenarios that immediately come to mind because of school mass shootings that often grab headlines. Schools and even third-parties such as Greek and other social organizations should be aware that they can also be held accountable for the harm that occurs at parties or other events they sponsor.
For example, six people who were shot while attending a fraternity party at Jackson State Unversity in Mississippi in 2016 recently filed a lawsuit against the Upsilon Epsilon Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. The victims’ lawsuit claims there was inadequate security at an unsupervised party hosted by the fraternity and promoted as “open-invitation” on social media and other means.
Similarly, two University of Missouri freshmen filed a lawsuit in March seeking to hold the campus chapter of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity accountable for negligence and three of its members liable for assault during an incident that occurred in September 2017. The students claim that Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity Inc., the national governing organization, had opportunities to prevent the assault but failed to do so. The national governing body eventually closed the chapter and shuttered the fraternity house following the incident.
In 2009, Beasley Allen represented a plaintiff injured at a different chapter house for the same fraternity and for similar claims – failing to provide proper and adequate security. The firm helped represent Taylor G. Jones who was injured at the Auburn University chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.
While student organizations promote fun and encourage students to enjoy college life, it is important they also uphold their duty to protect their patrons and guests.