Balancing Community Safety and Individual Rights: A Necessary Conversation

After a year of seemingly endless trials, campus safety can’t help but be on everyone’s mind.

As everyone knows, on Saturday, Feb. 1, Kevin Briggs, an MSU senior in chemical engineering and a member of the Honors College was arrested on charges of drugging and attempting to sexually assault a woman near campus. Still in handcuffs and leg-shackles, Briggs escaped the Law and Justice Center and remains at large.

After the news of Briggs’ escape broke, it became public knowledge that he is a sexual offender after a previous conviction for rape at age 17.. Upon his release from prison, the Montana legal system labeled Briggs a “level one” offender, which according to Montana Code, means that the risk of a repeat sexual offense is low.

According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the arrest has given cause to MSU officials to review how they handle applications from students convicted of sexual or violent crimes.

Currently MSU applicants are asked four questions: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Confined by a court for threatening harm to a person or property? Disciplined or suspended by a college for nonacademic reasons? Required to register as a sexual or violent offender?

If the applicant indicates “yes” for any of these questions, they must provide further information. Applications and the information are reviewed by the Campus Safety and Welfare Review Committee before making a recommendation to the dean of students. The committee reviews the severity of the crime, recommendations from parole officers, academic record, what the applicant has done since conviction and the potential to be successful at MSU.

All sexual and violent offenders attending MSU, including Briggs, are listed on the UPD website.

It’s admirable that MSU has chosen to act quickly in reviewing its policies, and it is an appropriate response to such an alarming situation. However, it’s important to heed caution in order to avoid overreacting in the heat of the spotlight.

The dilemma campus policy makers face is how to craft policies that seek to safeguard the rights of individuals to an education while simultaneously avoiding compromising the safety of the community.

The knee-jerk reaction is to question why violent and sexual offenders are allowed to attend the university at all, and to call for a policy change that would automatically disallow their acceptance.

The university certainly has a right to deny entrance to anyone it chooses — but it is a decision that should not be made lightly.

As a community we value education as a practical tool to help us succeed in our lives. However, on a more philosophical level, we value it as a transformational experience. Our education and experience on campus allow us to learn in lectures, but also let us learn from each other. We are continually challenged, inspired and frustrated together, and on graduation day it’s as much an achievement of the community as it is of the individual.

To outright disallow sexual and violent offenders admission to MSU would be to put in jeopardy the mission of a public university — to serve those who seek an education.

Yet, the most important element to a successful campus community is safety, and undoubtedly everyone deserves to feel safe in their place of school or work.

Despite the tumultuous events this year has seen, it’s important to note that MSU is statistically a very safe campus. Those seeking to find more infomation can find crime rates and statistics for MSU as well as any public institution at ope.ed.gov/security/.

If safety is the goal, let’s make sure we are reforming our policies in the name of safety and not as a symbolic measure of reaction.

Community safety colliding with individual rights is not a topic localized to MSU or to higher education, but rather one that can be found in many areas of society. People have the right to feel safe wherever they are, but should we sacrifice access to public education in the name of safety? That’s a conversation we should continue at every level, not only in the wake of tragic events, but anytime decisions are made about who can enter our community.