Hopkins to reassess procedures Campus shooting stirs officials to question handling of conflicts

Stiffer measures suggested

State law banning trespassing was a possibility

April 24, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The Johns Hopkins University will review policies addressing disputes between students because of the campus shooting two weeks ago that left one student dead and another charged in the slaying.

Once senior Robert J. Harwood Jr., 22, is tried in the killing of Rex T. Chao, 19, student affairs officials will examine how they handled the conflict over the men's failed friendship, in a review requested by acting Hopkins President Daniel Nathans.

College administrators across the country said student conflict is a routine problem and few incidents escalate into violence. But several higher-education officials suggested that Hopkins could have taken stronger steps to try to stop Mr. Harwood from harassing Mr. Chao.

Susan K. Boswell, Hopkins' dean of students, told Mr. Harwood several times to stop telephoning or writing Mr. Chao. Mr. Harwood, who completed his course work in December, also agreed to tell Dr. Boswell whenever he returned to campus.

Campus officials elsewhere said Hopkins could have taken other measures, including:

Charging Mr. Harwood under the campus conduct code.

Stanford University's Patricia Polhemus, chief dean of residence, said a harasser who was warned repeatedly should have faced formal sanctions. And his possession of a gun, which Mr. Chao pointed out to Hopkins officials, should have set off alarms, she said.

Ms. Polhemus said that the prospect of receiving punishment that is recorded on the academic record given to employers often persuades students to restrain themselves from inappropriate behavior.

Informing city police of the harassment.

Towson State University counsel Michael Anselmi said such a move may deter a student from taking further action.

Post-ing a security guard at events attended by both men.

On one occasion, Mr. Chao and his girlfriend, Suzanne Hubbard, requested an escort home from a concert after they saw Mr. Harwood in the audience. Knowing Mr. Chao's concern, the university could have acted even without a request, several officials said. The April 10 shooting occurred minutes after a College Republican meeting that both men attended.

Banning Mr. Harwood from campus.

A repeat offender like Mr. Harwood, who broke several promises to leave Mr. Chao and his girlfriend alone, would be a good candidate for the ban, said W. Paul Bumbalough, associate dean of student development at Duke University in North Carolina. Such a "trespass" order would have allowed university security guards to arrest Mr. Harwood merely for showing up on campus.

Under state law, the president of a public campus can order such a ban. Private colleges must seek court permission for the "trespass" order. While infrequent, such bans are used by larger universities, campus attorneys said.

In the Chao case, however, no grounds existed to do so, said Hopkins general counsel Estelle Fishbein. Despite determined efforts to restore his friendship with Mr. Chao by electronic mail and telephone over several months, Mr. Harwood had made no explicit threats of violence, Ms. Fishbein said. He did not give any indication he would hurt someone, she said.

All campus administrators interviewed said the slaying of Mr. Chao could have happened at their universities. And none of the suggested actions would have prevented a person intent on killing another from doing so, they said. But taking more safeguards might have persuaded Mr. Harwood not to seek out Mr. Chao.

Hopkins officials said Mr. Harwood's absence from the campus this term meant they had little leverage over him. They also said his possession of a gun did not mean he posed a threat to others. Ms. Fishbein said that the university would not have handled the conflict between the two men differently, given the knowledge it had at the time.

Because Mr. Harwood never made threats of violence, some officials responsible for safety at other colleges said Hopkins did not have many choices in attempting to defuse tensions.

"It's not like there's a whole lot of bright solutions," said John Anderson, the Maryland assistant attorney general who heads the education division of the state attorney general's office.

Mr. Anderson compared the Hopkins situation to a domestic dispute or stalking in which a victim believes the assailant intends to strike. "Until an act is really taken, you're limited," he said.

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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