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The Politics of Parental Grieving

For every child killed by crime or calamity, there seems to be a new law. Outraged mothers and fathers make good drama but not always good legislation, critics say.

June 03, 1999|MARK FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The story is powerful, almost mythic, yet tragically true. A young woman goes to a fine university in a rural community and, asleep in her dorm room during her freshman year, is raped and beaten by an intruder. He strangles her with a Slinky toy.

The shattered mother, Connie Clery, stands at the end of her driveway a week after the funeral and tells a friend: Something must be done. A wrong must be righted. She and her husband embark on an epic 13-year crusade that results in two sweeping federal laws and 13 state statutes that compel colleges to collect and disclose the details of every crime committed on every campus.

Mission accomplished? Not yet. Binge drinking and date rape must be stamped out next. And violence at the high schools. "We have the whole country behind us," says Clery, who believes schools remain committed to covering up campus crime. "We're right there with our enemies, in the pit."

Yet the schools say the steady rain of regulation is creating more paperwork than police work. George Washington University, for example, says the latest federal law will compel police on the District of Columbia campus to track crime way out on public portions of Pennsylvania Avenue and the nearby World Bank building.

"We've gotten to the point where we don't know what to report and what not to report," says Dolores Stafford, chief of the GWU campus police. "We've had schools pull officers off the street to monitor compliance."

The Clerys remain undeterred. Theirs is a classic American story of contemporary activism, a wounded family's odyssey endlessly replayed, from Megan's Law to missing children on milk cartons. Thanks to the unlimited power of parental grief to attract media and sway lawmakers, lawn darts in toy stores and drawstrings on children's clothing are banned. A vaccine comes to market earlier than originally intended. A child's sickness is linked to Love Canal, spawning the Superfund.

And at the center of them all so often stands a tragic tale, a family calamity transformed into arresting allegory, a freak occurrence offered up as a terrifying trend.

Parental grief, in fact, has become one of the most powerful political forces in the country. Already, the massacre at a high school in Littleton, Colo., has inspired a parents' group modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving that aims to toughen gun laws and, if history is any guide, will inevitably broaden its agenda.

"You see this on hundreds of different things," says Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas expert on interest groups. "What is fascinating to me is that a lot of times the power is in the story itself, the narrative. The power it has over legislatures. Anecdotes become the evidence."

Though it can be politically dangerous to oppose teary-eyed parents from middle-class America clutching photos of children killed by what they are certain is some institutional defect, there are signs of an emerging backlash.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist recently ripped Congress for churning out laws "to appear responsive to every highly publicized societal ill or sensational crime."

In February, an American Bar Assn. task force said 40% of the federal criminal laws passed since the Civil War had come in just the last three decades--often "in patchwork response to newsworthy events" rather than "an identifiable federal need."

The bar says the last Congress alone slogged through 1,000 new crime proposals, with some of the voguish laws passed in recent years--including those against drive-by shootings, interstate spouse abuse and murder committed by escaped convicts--so superfluous they were never used.

'How Do You Say "No" to a Crying Mother?'

Even MADD founder Candy Lightner says the politics of grief have seized control of the political system. "How are you going to say 'no' to a crying mother?" she says. "The legislature winds up acting emotionally, and you have all these ridiculous laws passed that don't do a hill of beans. I can relate to it, because I used to do it too."

During the next few months, the Department of Education will write regulations to comply with the most recent campus crime-reporting provisions sought by the Clerys and signed by President Clinton last year. The law compels colleges to count crimes that occur not just on campus but near it, and instances of wrongdoing handled administratively by schools even if no crime is reported to police. It carries fines up to $25,000.

The schools say the rules only add to an already bewildering welter of crime reporting regulations, and a General Accounting Office study said confusion about the rules is one of the main reasons schools aren't complying with the act. But the Clerys and their supporters point out that many schools have a long record of opposing anything that might poison their ivy-covered marketing image. They say rapes and assaults go unreported because schools often divert them through student disciplinary offices rather than police agencies.

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