A little tipsy from an off-campus party, freshman Kristin Smart set off on foot for her Cal Poly dorm room at 2 a.m. on a Saturday accompanied by a seemingly helpful young man.
That was Memorial Day weekend two years ago.
She has not been seen since.
It took police on the San Luis Obispo campus three days to open a formal investigation, partly from confusion during the long holiday weekend over whether Smart was really missing.
Though the campus cops found troubling “discrepancies” in the young man’s story about what happened that night, they said they never came up with sufficient legal cause to search his dorm room. And by the time they turned the case over to sheriff’s homicide detectives, the academic year was over. The suspect had cleared out his dorm room, gone from the campus for good.
“The campus police don’t routinely handle homicides and were resistant to handing it over to the sheriffs until a month afterward,” complains Stan Smart, the father of the 19-year-old Stockton woman. “By that time, the trail was cold.”
Kristin Smart’s 1996 disappearance now is the inspiration behind a new state law that will force campus authorities to spell out exactly when they will call in outside police to help investigate violent crimes.
The measure, signed by Gov. Pete Wilson on Tuesday, was championed by Stan Smart and his wife, who channeled their frustration and rage into lobbying for legislation to change the system.
Cal Poly’s attorney, Carlos Cordova, said the campus community’s heart goes out to the Smarts over their “tragedy.”
But he is reluctant to say too much because the university is still fending off a lawsuit from the couple. He fiercely defends the campus’ “experienced and capable” police officers, however, saying they worked closely with sheriff’s investigators, the FBI and other agencies once it was clear the young woman was missing.
Nonetheless, Poly joined other public campuses in supporting the Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act.
The new law affirms that campus police on all of California’s public colleges have primary authority for investigating crime on their grounds, but requires that they arrive at formal, written working agreements with neighboring police shops.
“We all think that our children are safe on campus,” says Denise Smart, the still-furious mother of the vanished Kristin. “The new law hopefully will prevent this from happening in the future.”
The Smarts are far from the first couple to challenge the way campuses deal with crime.
Clusters of parents--many with horror stories of their own--have formed lobbying groups around the nation: Safe Campuses Now, National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, Parents Against Corruption & Coverup, Security on Campus Inc. The list goes on.
These groups lobby for better crime prevention, quicker response from campus police and a more straightforward accounting of criminal activity.
Mostly, they complain, they run up against college officials’ aversion to any mention of crime, fearing it will shatter the image of their campuses as havens for teenagers just learning how to navigate life on their own.
It literally took an act of Congress in 1990 to require campuses to report property and violent crimes in a systematic way. Still, federal officials say many continue to underreport certain crimes--like date rape--for fear of harming their reputation or earning a nasty reference in one of those how-to-pick-a-college guidebooks.
One problem: How many institutions bring suspected wrongdoers before campus judiciary proceedings rather than arrest them. These proceedings are behind closed doors and any punishment ends up concealed in the student’s academic record, which is protected by federal privacy law.
Congress is wrestling with ways to close loopholes in the Campus Security Act of 1990, including opening the disciplinary records of students who commit violent acts.
College officials readily agree that campuses are hardly immune to crime. But they complain that the schools with the worst statistics are often not the most dangerous--merely the ones most vigorous in enforcement or reporting. There is little incentive to join them, for fear of scaring away prospective students.
California’s colleges and universities reported 15,723 crimes in 1996, the vast majority thefts. The nine-campus University of California reported 147 violent crimes, including assaults, robberies, rapes and one murder.
The Cal State system’s 22 campuses--including Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo--reported 171 violent crimes, including three murders.
Kristin Smart’s case was not among the statistics.
Why? Because investigators have yet to even discover the body to confirm there was a crime.
As they say, the investigation continues.