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The Politics of Parental Grieving

COLUMN ONE

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

"After we got 13 states, I decided I was not going to live long enough to do 50 states," Clery says. "Both Howard and I had this focus. It was extremely difficult to even work together. He was afraid I was going to lose it and maybe kill myself."

The issue was embraced by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and when the first federal act was signed by President Bush in 1990, the Clerys had seemingly accomplished their mission. They could rest.

Yet the Clerys gradually realized that many schools were finding ways to get around the act. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, didn't report anything that occurred on campus streets, sidewalks or food courts--which constituted 90% of the crimes its police investigated.

Then a top Education Department official was quoted as saying that the law had been passed to pacify a family of a murdered student. "That absolutely ignited and refueled our engines," Clery says.

The result was last year's tougher crime law.

Sheldon E. Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, calls the Clery killing "a unique set of circumstances involving the daughter of a reasonably wealthy family. They were politically active and able to make an impact." He says Jeanne Clery had left her dormitory room unlocked and therefore had "not exercised the best possible care that night."

Steinbach insists campus crime reflects the community around it--studies generally show the schools to be safer, in fact--yet he says the debate is rarely rational. "I always understood the pain [the Clerys] were going through--and their need for vindication that the school had somehow done them wrong."

For all their objections, the schools have wound up supporting the federal bills in their final incarnations "because it looked like we had something to hide and we have nothing to hide," says Steinbach, who nevertheless acknowledges that schools once routinely kept crime information secret.

Binge-Drinking, Date-Rape Campaigns

The Clery group has branched out considerably, lobbying for measures against binge drinking and possession of the so-called date-rape drug.

Though they keep Jeanne's room at home exactly as she left it, the couple have moved on in some ways, such as spending their winters in Florida. But Clery says the Sun Belt sojourns don't mean her mission is ending. She ticks off the names of other parents who essentially are living her life, as sorrowful advocates born on the day their children died.

"These are very important victims," she says.

"It takes fire in your belly to be able to stand this kind of horror. Sometimes, it's like living in a sewer. And I'd like to get out. All of our board of directors are victims. They are the only ones who understand that we can't get out until we're sure that the colleges are doing their job to protect these kids.

"When I get to that crossroads, maybe I can give up," she says. "Maybe I'll never get there."

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Times researcher John Beckham contributed to this story.

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