TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Question 167: Should law violations on a college campus be reported to the police?

I just became the top administrator for student affairs at a small Catholic university (until recently we called ourselves “college”). While I will not single-handedly make policy on student affairs, I will have a large role in the process. My problem concerns student misconduct that violates not only our institutional norms but, in a more or less serious way, public laws: rape, sexual and other assault, arson, theft, intentional property destruction, drug offenses, and so on.373

My main question is whether it should be our general policy to report incidents of such misconduct to the police. But I do not think this question can be answered without simultaneously answering a number of related questions. Should we encourage students to report such incidents to the police, and, if so, before or after reporting them to us? Should we have a uniform policy on this matter for all members of the college community—not only students, but faculty, administrators, maintenance people, office staff, and so forth? When there is only some reason to think someone has violated the law, should we proceed in the same way as when it is fairly certain or even obvious that an offense has occurred? Should we differentiate sharply between various kinds of offenses, say, by having different policies for offenses against persons and against property and so-called victimless crimes, such as drug offenses?

Closely related to these questions are certain others. Often, misconduct that violates the law also violates institutional norms, and then both the law and our own disciplinary process can come into play. In many respects, our disciplinary process does not meet the requirements of due process in criminal proceedings, and, for this and other reasons, we sometimes find students guilty of infractions and impose penalties in situations where the public authorities would—or actually do—decline to prosecute, or would deal with a serious offense by treating it as a misdemeanor, or would fail to obtain an indictment.

Our past policy has not been clear, and our practice has not been consistent. There has been considerable reluctance to call the police. Students have not been told not to report violations of the law to public authorities, but they have not been encouraged to do so; indeed, my predecessor frowned on anyone’s “going public” and wanted virtually all problems to be “kept within the college community.” It would have been considered disloyal to go to the public authorities before approaching the college administration about virtually any misconduct short of a serious crime against a person, still in the process of being committed.

As a result of all this, violations of the law were not reported to the public authorities unless it was virtually certain a violation had occurred; the nature of the offense made little or no difference.

There has been no policy for dealing with misconduct by members of the college community other than students. It seems to have been assumed that members of the administration and faculty never violate the law, and other employees have been treated very much as they would be by the management of any business.

Finally, some of my fellow administrators and many students think our own disciplinary process should have all the features of criminal due process. They consider it unfair for the institution to impose penalties on students for misconduct that was reported to the police yet was not punished by the law even though it could have been. Personally, I am inclined to take the contrary view.


The questioner raises a set of complicated, specific questions to which there probably is no single set of right answers. But the issues can be clarified and the limits of morally acceptable positions indicated. Private groups and their members are not exempt from public law, and citizens ought to report crimes. But this duty admits exceptions, so that the authorities in private groups often rightly rely on internal disciplinary processes to deal with wrongful behavior. In general, college and university administrators should deal with unlawful behavior on campus much as management does in a factory or place of business. This does not require reporting all crimes, but does require always reporting known or probable crimes of certain types, which ought to be specified. Students should not be encouraged to report all incidents to police, but they should not be inhibited from communicating with public authorities. Internal disciplinary processes must be fair but need not have all the safeguards of due process in criminal law. Everyone on campus should be treated alike when it comes to reporting unlawful behavior, but internal disciplinary processes must take into account the differing rights of different groups within the community.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Your questions are very specific. You say nothing about your university’s wider policies and practices regarding student conduct on campus. I hope they are subordinated to an effort to build an authentic Christian community. If students and other members of the university community considered themselves “dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6.11), you would not have a problem about which on-campus crimes to report to the police. Moreover, any Christian com~munity’s sound moral instruction and pastoral care of its members should help them form and reform themselves so that the remedies of its internal discipline and public criminal process will not often be required.

Reporting violations of the law to police obviously has a different significance where the laws and legal procedures are regarded as just than where these are considered unjust. In responding to your question, therefore, I shall assume that the laws whose violation is in question are those of a generally just polity—for example, one of the liberal democracies—not those of a thoroughly oppressive regime, such as Hitler’s Germany.

The set of questions you propose really is complicated, since it involves complex relationships among individuals, a voluntary association to which they belong, that community’s authorities, the wider society, and the public authorities. The common goods of both the university community and the wider society must be respected and served; and the goods of justice and fellowship are at stake in diverse ways. Probably there is no single set of right answers. but, plainly, there are some wrong ones. I shall try here to clarify the issues and mark out some boundaries. Within those boundaries, colleges and universities (from now on, for brevity’s sake, “colleges”) reasonably differ in their policies and procedures.

Some might argue that mercy should characterize a Catholic college’s handling of its members’ criminal misbehavior, so that most offenses will be treated leniently, offenders who seem contrite almost always will be given another chance, and sympathy for the individual often will prevail over the requirements of rules and laws. It is true that Christian mercy rightly understood—love overcoming evil—should motivate and shape what the college does in this as in other matters. But authentic mercy never sets aside the requirements of the common good or the rights of victims and potential victims (see q. 18, above). Therefore, a Catholic college’s policies and procedures for dealing with criminal misbehavior should not be permissive, indulgent, or arbitrary. Only by being a model of justice will they be truly merciful.

Moreover, members of a Catholic community charged with protecting rights and the common good should not be deterred from seeking justice by the fear of being, or seeming to be, judgmental (see LCL, 312–13). Though God “forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone” (GS 28), he gives some the authority to articulate and enforce just standards of outward behavior (see Rom 13.1–5). If those entrusted with that authority fail to exercise it, they themselves share responsibility not only for the wrongdoing invited by their negligence but for its many foreseeable bad consequences in this world and the next.

College administrators should of course obtain legal advice in developing policies and designing procedures. They also should involve both local public authorities and all segments of the college community as fully as possible, and should do their best to reconcile opposing views, so that the results will be supported by a very broad and firm consensus. Only with such a foundation is a policy or procedure likely to enjoy the general respect it will need if it is to be conducive to the common good.

All private groups—families, churches, business organizations, and so on—have their own internal discipline, including a set of more or less clearly articulated norms and processes for enforcing them. While directed toward the private group’s limited common good, this discipline is analogous to the criminal law of political society and to some extent overlaps with it. For, although the common good of political society and that of a private group, being distinct, set many different requirements for their members’ behavior, any group whatsoever must insist on certain requirements if it is to be a decent human community.

No private group within a political society is an enclave exempt from public laws and legal processes. The jurisdiction of public authorities extends to crimes committed in the privacy of one’s home, in a house of worship, in a factory or place of business, on a college campus, and so on. In general, citizens should cooperate with the criminal justice system. An important element of this responsibility is the moral duty—which sometimes also is a legal duty—to report not only known criminal activities but even probable ones.

This duty, however, is not absolute. It is limited by certain exceptions, two categories of which are relevant to your questions. First, often because of a policy based on practical considerations, though rarely because of the letter of the law, prosecutors and police allow a crime’s victim to decide in certain types of cases whether the violator will be prosecuted, that is, they let the victim decide whether to “press charges.” In types of cases where that is known to be the public prosecutor’s practice, a victim persuaded that prosecution will not be in the true interests of those concerned need not inform public authorities of the crime, and others aware of the crime also have no responsibility to report it. Second, even conscientious people who are aware of many sorts of illegal activities by members of their own families and by various associates often put off informing the public authorities while admonishing the criminal to repent, make amends, and abide by the law in the future. Such a delay in reporting seldom is treated as a violation of legal duty.

In view of these exceptions to the duty to report criminal activities, those exercising authority in any private group use their own internal disciplinary process to deal with much—and perhaps even most—of the unlawful behavior among their members. In practice, the public authorities are called upon only when that is necessary to provide protection against outsiders, to reinforce the limited power of the group’s internal discipline, and to deal with crimes so serious that not to report them might itself be regarded as a crime or an injustice to members of the larger community.

In colleges, the general tendency to deal privately with unlawful behavior was reinforced in times past by the assumptions that students are minors, not fully responsible for their own behavior, and that a college’s administrators exercise guardianship over its students on their parents’ behalf. College discipline extended to many aspects of students’ lives, being directed not only to the common good of the academic community but to each student’s personal welfare. Since the 1960s, however, people of college age have come to be classed as adults, with the result that much of the traditional discipline has vanished from college campuses. This development can be considered reasonable only if it is carried through consistently, so that students who enjoy all the rights and privileges of adults are not extended the indulgence and special protections appropriate only for children (see q. 163, above). Consequently, there no longer is a special reason for a college to shelter students who commit crimes from the workings of the criminal justice system. In general, college administrators should deal with unlawful behavior on campus much as management does in a factory or place of business. Such a general policy, of course, in no way negates a college’s responsibility, flowing from its specific common good, to discipline its students and other members in ways very different from those appropriate in a factory or office.

On this basis, should a college’s general policy be to report all unlawful behavior to the public authorities? I doubt it, for if that were the policy, it probably would be appropriate to make exceptions to it more often than to adhere to it. Many violations will be of a sort that public authorities do not prosecute unless the victim presses charges, and the victim, whether a member of the college community or the community itself often will prefer not to do so. In still other cases, where public authorities tolerate having members of groups remain silent about other members’ unlawful behavior while trying to bring about their reform, a college’s authorities often will prefer this approach, especially when, as often happens, the circumstances seem to mitigate a student’s responsibility for an infraction. In other cases, however, either the common good of political society or of the college itself, or fairness to individuals who have been or might be gravely harmed by unlawful behavior, or the criminal’s own true self-interest will require that he or she be subjected to the sanctions of criminal law. Then it will be unjustifiable to make any exception to the duty to report unlawful activity. Moreover, if the college chooses not to use its own disciplinary process to deal with unlawful behavior or that process proves ineffective, indefinite delay in reporting criminal activity is unjustifiable. For example, if colleges tolerate continuing violent and destructive behavior by students, they fail to fulfill their responsibilities not only to their own common good and that of the larger society but their duty to protect and correct their members.

In view of the complexity of the matter, it probably should be the college’s policy always to report to the public authorities only certain specified types of unlawful behavior, and to make sure everyone on campus knows and understands this policy; at the same time, the college must keep open the option of reporting other instances of unlawful behavior when its internal discipline proves inadequate to cope with them or a reasonable effort to induce a wrongdoer to reform is fruitless. Where a policy of this sort is in place, I think it will be appropriate to report to the public authorities every instance in which there is a good reason to believe unlawful behavior of any of the specified types has occurred, and not just cases in which this is obvious or virtually certain. For deciding whether someone probably has committed a crime should be left to the public authorities, who are assigned that responsibility by law.

In specifying the types of unlawful behavior that will be reported, I do not think it would be helpful to use broad categories, such as crimes against persons, crimes against property, and so-called victimless crimes. Crimes against persons include both assault with a deadly weapon and simple assault or battery; surely the former always should be reported, while probably the latter usually should not be, since that would mean calling the police every time a student is slightly injured in a fight with another student. Again, vandalism, a crime against property, varies in seriousness according to the extent of the damage; probably a line should be drawn, so that serious instances (for example, slashing tires) always will be reported but not every minor incident (for example, smashing a light bulb in a dormitory hall). Similarly, it is one thing for a student to use an illegal drug, another for someone on campus to stock and distribute illegal drugs.

Besides, in specifying some types of unlawful behavior that always will be reported, a sound policy will take into account the importance of mutual respect between students, faculty, administrators, and other college employees. A fist fight involving two students is one thing; similar behavior involving a student and some other member of the college community is quite another. In a Catholic institution, moreover, the policy on reporting offenses should take into account the religious significance of criminal behavior that aggravates its gravity by the standards of the college community even if not by those of the wider society. For example, vandalism that involves sacrilege—such as the desecration of the chapel or a crucifix in a classroom—regardless of the monetary value of the damage could rightly be listed as a crime not only to be dealt with severely by the college’s disciplinary process but always to be reported to the public authorities.

Should students be encouraged to report incidents to police? Considering how private groups usually operate, I do not think you should encourage them to report every law violation, but only instances of the kinds specified by the established policy. However, they should be told that their status as students in no way limits their right to invoke the police power of the state and they always should feel free to report anything they believe to be unlawful behavior, whether it occurs on or off campus. Certainly, the college’s fear of bad publicity should not lead to discouraging students from reporting law violations, and nobody should be made to feel disloyal to the college community for calling the police about an incident on campus.

Obviously, a college’s internal disciplinary process will be morally acceptable only if it involves a serious effort to be fair to everyone concerned and a reasonable likelihood of arriving at judgments based on the truth. These conditions require at least that those alleging violations be heard respectfully and treated as gently as possible; that the accused be presumed innocent, notified of the charges and possible penalties, given reasonable time to prepare to respond, given access to evidence and/or testimony supporting the charge, and permitted to present evidence and/or testimony tending to rebut the accusation or mitigate the offense; that no case be heard by a party to it; that the person presiding over the process seek to ensure its fairness; that a single accuser’s unsupported testimony be presumed insufficient to find an accused guilty; that those adjudicating a case reach their decision solely on the basis of relevant evidence, testimony, and arguments; that the accused be informed of the decision reached and the reasons for it; that the proceedings be conducted in private and remain confidential so as to minimize burdens and injury to victims and other innocent parties; and that a record (though not necessarily a recording or transcript) of the process be made for use by the college president or other person empowered to consider an appeal, the public authorities, and others with a right to the information.

Nevertheless, I think you are right in rejecting the view that your disciplinary process should have all the features of due process in criminal law. It must be sufficiently workable, economical, and efficient to serve the common good of the college community, and it could not do this if it were as cumbersome as criminal due process—for example, with respect to the right to counsel and the admissibility of confessions and evidence. A less elaborate process can be fair, especially since the ultimate sanction—a student’s expulsion or an employee’s dismissal—is not so severe as the ultimate sanctions of criminal law. So, when unlawful behavior of the more serious kinds regularly reported to the public authorities also violates the college’s standards, I see no injustice if the perpetrator is found guilty and punished by the college’s disciplinary process even while escaping the sanctions of criminal law. At the same time, in dealing with serious crimes, the inevitable limits of the disciplinary system—not least, its sanctions—point to the inappropriateness of trying to use it in place of criminal law and its processes.

Finally, it seems to me that all members of the college community—students, faculty, administrators, and other employees—should be treated alike in the matter of reporting unlawful behavior to the public authorities. Moreover, the college should not apply its own discipline against criminal misbehavior by some members (for example, students or employees) while tolerating the same kinds of misbehavior by others (for example, faculty or administrators). Still, members of each group have different roles and responsibilities within the institution, so that its common good calls for somewhat diverse internal disciplinary processes and rules for each group. Trying to apply the same internal disciplinary process and rules to everyone also would conflict with procedures generally accepted in the academic world for dealing with the misbehavior of faculty members and, perhaps, with rules governing the treatment of unionized employees.

373. This question concerns an institution located in the United States. Some universities in other countries enjoy certain immunities from the public criminal justice system and exercise, within limits, police and judicial power on their own campuses. In the case of such an institution, some of the response to this question would be irrelevant or would apply differently.