June 20, 2007 — -- Despite believing that Laura Dickinson had been raped and murdered in her dorm room, administrators at Eastern Michigan University took 10 weeks to tell her parents and university students and staff the truth.
In failing to tell the young woman's family, school safety experts say, the university acted immorally. But in failing to tell Dickinson's fellow students, campus law experts say, the university acted illegally.
On Dec. 16, 2006, the university sent a release out to students and faculty telling them the 22-year-old nutrition major had died but there was "no reason to suspect foul play."
By the time the university released its statement, Dickinson had been dead for four days. After neighbors complained of an odor, a janitor found Dickinson in her room naked, a pillow covering her head, with traces of semen on her leg.
Dickinson's body was found after her family told university officials she had not returned several phone calls.
"I called her on Wednesday and there was no answer," Dickinson's father, Bob Dickinson, told "Good Morning America" today.
Then Bob and her mother, Deb Dickinson, received the news.
"It was pretty devastating," Bob said. "I don't know if there's a gentle way to say that."
The official word from Eastern Michigan University was that Laura had died of natural causes, that somehow the healthy 22-year-old had been killed by a freak accident.
"They said there was no evidence of foul play," Deb said.
It would be 10 weeks before the full story came out. On Feb. 23, Eastern Michigan student Orange Taylor III was arrested. This was how her fellow students — and her family — learned she had been killed. Taylor has pleaded not guilty. He is scheduled to go on trial for murder in October.
"For 10 weeks we wondered how a healthy 22-year-old girl had died. Now we know that it wasn't just a flukey odd accident. Something had definitely happened and they lied about it," Bob told ABCNEWS.com.
Taylor, 20, faces trial Oct. 15 on murder and criminal sexual conduct charges.
University administrators, including university president John Fallon, would not comment for this story to ABCNEWS.com.
Fallon issued a statement Tuesday to the Board of Regents concerning the handling of information in the case. "I apologized to you and say … never again will such a confounding series of mistakes be made on my watch," Fallon said.
Dickinson's murder, like the massacre at Virginia Tech in April, sheds light on the delicate balance universities must strike between protecting individual's privacy and protecting the public's safety.
Though the school took proper measures to alert the police, it violated federal law by not informing the school's students, school safety advocates say.
Under the Clery Act, universities are required by federal law to inform students of all crimes that have occurred on or near the campus that post a potential threat to public safety.
"The university lied to the community and they lied to this young woman's family," said Daniel Carter, senior vice president of the watchdog group Security on Campus.
"This is an absolute betrayal of trust," he told ABCNEWS.com. [The Clery Act] is the first step in keeping college campuses safe. It forces colleges to acknowledge security threats and warn the community so students can protect themselves."
Passed in 1990, the law was named for Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in her college dorm in 1986.
University officials have engaged in a game of finger-pointing, with members of the independent and state-appointed Board of Regents chastising members of the school's administration for not disclosing the details of Dickinson's death.
A recently released report commissioned by the board and conducted by the law firm Butzel-Long alleged that some administrators knowingly had hidden information from the students and Dickinson's family.
According to the report, Fallon routinely denied that a crime had occurred.
Tom Sidlik, chairman of the regents board, however, apologized for the school's failure to be more forthright.
He denied the school had engaged in a cover-up and insisted mistakes were made on account of ignorance of the law.
"I can't say why people took certain actions, but we know what those actions were. Clearly the university violated the Clery Act, which states the obligations of the university," Sidlik said.
"We've had a tragic death that made the university violate federal law and that's pretty serious. We are going to take actions to make sure everyone knows the law," he said.
Sidlik also said new measures had been taken to improve campus security, including replacing traditional keys with swipe cards. He would not comment on whether Taylor was a known criminal offender or whether the school had taken disciplinary action against him in the past.
After the massacre at Virginia Tech, in which student Seung-hui Cho killed 32 people, new attention was focused on campus and the importance — as well as the limitations — of the Clery Act.
The law was intended in part to help prospective students choose a school based on its commitment to safety. Experts say, however, that students rarely ask schools for their security records or make safety a priority in choosing the school.
"The original intent of the law was to provide a common set of crime statistics that students and parents could use to determine which college to go to based on safety," said Dennis Gregory, an education professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia.
"But the law is an unfunded mandate with no federal support. Money needs to be focused on education programs training for administrators, faculty and students to keep crimes from happening," he said.
Steven Janosik, a professor at Virginia Tech and expert on the Clery Act, has worked with Gregory to study the law's effectiveness. Janosik said schools would sometimes consciously cover up crimes and not report them.
"Most administrators are trying to comply in good faith but they don't always succeed. Occasionally, institutions have clearly ignored the Clery Act and covered up information. Institutions ought to be held responsible for not complying with act," he said.
From 1990 to 2003, the Department of Education, which is tasked with overseeing the act's implementation, has only fined three schools for violations.
Bob told ABC News.com he hoped that his daughter's death would serve as a clarion call to universities to take reporting more seriously and to parents of perspective students when helping their children look at colleges.
"We never knew about the Clery Act or what it was there for," he said. "I'm sure the publicity of this event will bring it to light."
"Parents and kids need to investigate colleges before they go there. … If events occurred once or twice, consider not going there. It could put you in danger," he said.
"It's still hard for me to believe that she's gone. How could this have happened?" Deb told "GMA."