Whitman’s Missing Students policy put to test

Josh Goodman

When a student was reported as missing on Saturday, Feb. 5, his case was the first under Whitman’s new Missing Student Notification Policy. The policy, which went into effect at the start of this academic year, includes who to contact when a student goes missing, the steps the Dean of Students Office will take and an opportunity for students living in a residence hall to designate a contact person in the event they go missing.

Though the opportunity to designate a contact person is new, Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland said that much of the rest of the policy simply spells out what the administration would have done in the past. Cleveland said that there are typically one or two missing students per year, along with several cases where a parent cannot reach their child at Whitman, but the student is not actually missing.

“Truthfully, it helps legitimize our efforts to find students who others are concerned about having not seen for awhile,” he said. “In situations where the person has been absent but not truly missing, sometimes they can be upset that we went through this effort, but now we have a policy that lets them know we’re going to do this.”

To comply with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, Whitman and most other residential colleges were required, beginning in the fall 2010 semester, to ask students living in a residence hall to register a contact person in case they could not be reached. Oftentimes, close friends will have seen the student or may know if the student went on a trip.

Cleveland said he did not think January Start students had had the opportunity to designate a contact yet. Whitman is not required to seek contacts for students living off-campus, including in fraternities, though Cleveland said that he plans to discuss that possibility in the future.

With the new Missing Student Notification Policy, staff members must notify the Dean of Students Office or Security upon hearing about a missing student. Whichever office is involved will then contact residence life, the person’s contact and faculty and staff, if necessary. Beyond that, the college may begin an investigation, which may include contacting the student’s friends and looking at their Facebook wall.

When those options don’t pan out, the Dean of Students Office may decide to send out a campuswide e-mail, as they did on Feb. 5, or to contact the media.

But Cleveland said that every case is different, including the one on Feb. 5. In that case, in which sophomore Nick Cross was reported as missing, students played an unusually large role in the search: when Cross’s sister Sharon Cross created a Facebook page urging students to search for her brother the next morning, over 80 signed up.

Ultimately, Cross returned around 2 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 6; the Dean of Students’ Office was notified shortly thereafter, putting an end to the college’s investigation.

Though Cross did not want to comment, he explained his reasoning in a public Facebook post.

“I am truly sorry. I am so grateful for everyone’s effort,” he wrote. “Taking off just felt like something I needed to do, and it didn’t occur to me at that spontaneous moment that I had to tell anyone that I would, of course, come back soon.”

Cleveland, meanwhile, is glad that this case was only a lapse in communication and that the missing students policy worked.

“I thought that the policy worked,” he said. “I thought there was a network for faculty [and] students that developed [and] kept in communication on this situation, and I think that we had a positive ending.”