Penney Chapman wants to be clear about her efforts to inform the student body at the University of Illinois at Chicago about failings in campus security. "It's not me against this really awesome basketball player who is a convicted sex offender," she says. "It's really me against Housing and their policy--and why they're not willing to change it or investigate the matter."
Chapman, a senior majoring in graphic design, rents an apartment off campus, but for the past two summers she lived part-time in the dorms while she helped lead freshman orientations. Last winter a friend, a dormitory resident assistant, came to her with some disturbing news: a sex offender was living in the dorms. The friend had been surfing the Chicago Police Department's new registered sex offender database on the Web, and "she was freaking out," says Chapman. "She was like, 'What am I gonna do? I'm gonna print this out and post his picture.' I said, 'Wait, wait, wait. You can't do that.'"
Chapman was already concerned about how UIC Campus Housing dealt with security. She claims that the previous summer someone made off with a master key to one of the dorms and stole from the rooms of orientation leaders. He was caught, but she says the school said it would cost too much to replace the locks. "That was one of the incidents," she says. "For the first two weeks of our training period there were about 30 of us on staff in the halls, and there was no security guard at all. It was eerie--we were all spread out over this big area. And sometimes there's no security on weekends. It kind of felt like they didn't care if we were safe."
After learning about the sex offender, who turned out to be a member of the UIC basketball team, Chapman worried about her friends living in the dorms, but she didn't know what could be done about it. "I don't know what the charges against him were. Obviously it's got to be pretty terrible to put it on a Web site that says, 'OK, warning! Stay away!' But I just blocked it out, being busy with school."
The ballplayer's profile on the Web site was no secret in the residence halls, and rumors flew. "A lot of people were talking about it," says one student who wants to remain anonymous. "Some RAs would put butcher paper up on the walls saying 'Should athletes with free scholarships still be able to live in the dorms even though they are sexual offenders?' I talked to a lot of people about it and heard different stories as to what happened. I heard he was kicked out of Rutgers for it and that he actually walked into a resident's room and just raped her."
The Web site doesn't state the crimes of any of the 3,203 sex offenders listed there, including those of Maurice Brown, a sophomore power forward for the UIC Flames. His photograph is posted next to his sex, race, birth date, height, weight, a partial street address, and the police beat that covers that address. There's also a box for each offender titled "Victim under 18 yrs." Brown's is marked "N."
Brown graduated from high school in Syracuse, New York, as his basketball team's all-time leading scorer. In fall 1997 he attended Rutgers University, though he didn't play. According to the Rutgers student paper the Daily Targum, he was suspended from the team early in the season "for academic reasons." In early December of that year the Targum broke the story that a student who'd been asleep in her dorm room "reported that she awoke to see a man who was fondling her feet." Brown turned himself in and was charged with "lewd behavior, harassment, and burglary." He was suspended from the team and a few days later withdrew from the university. A few months after that he pleaded guilty to burglary and criminal sexual contact.
Wade Baker, the assistant prosecutor in New Jersey's Middlesex County who handled Brown's case, says, "Basically the individual liked to feel the feet of certain students while they were sleeping. They would wake up, and since he resided in the dorms most of them would just say, 'Maurice, listen, I'm not really into this. I think you should go back to your room.' And he would go back." Baker says Brown had no criminal record and the charges weren't serious enough to warrant jail time. "He got probation and some type of evaluation. We were concerned with him getting the help that he needed." Brown's crime also wasn't serious enough to have his name published under New Jersey's community-notification laws. "We didn't really want to brand him as a Megan's Law guy," says Baker. "Maybe you guys have more rigid requirements, but he would not be required to register here."
Daily Targum news editor Kathleen Lewis says the affair is now seen as an amusing cautionary tale on the Rutgers campus. "It's a legend," she says. "When they give tours to freshmen they tell them 'Lock your doors, but listen to what happened...'"
Rutgers students may minimize what Brown did, but under Illinois law it qualifies as criminal sexual abuse, which requires him to register with the police under the Sex Offender Registration Act. That act says that individuals convicted of certain crimes--including child pornography, aggravated criminal sexual assault, and kidnapping--are required to register their address with the police for ten years after conviction or release. Individuals convicted of violating equivalent federal laws or laws of other states are also expected to register. If they move they're required to reregister within ten days or be charged with a felony.
According to another on-line profile of Brown, this one on the Flames men's basketball Web site, he transferred to UIC last fall, though he sat out the season because of NCAA transfer rules. It's no surprise that the Flames would want someone as talented on the basketball court as he is. And head coach Jimmy Collins is quick to defend him. Collins, who once worked as a hearing officer for the Cook County probation department, says he's known Brown since he was a kid in Syracuse. Collins also says he knew what happened at Rutgers before he brought Brown to UIC. "If you look at all the rules, NCAA rules and societal rules, basketball players and athletes are some of the most discriminated against people in the world," he says. "You anticipate stuff like this. You don't know how much it's going to get blown up, but you know that anytime anybody does anything that society thinks is wrong you get a lot of people wanting to cast the first stones. Maurice is unmatched not only as a ballplayer but as a citizen. He's worked extremely hard off the court to quash some of the stereotypes and some of the things that have been thrown against him. He's doing what he's supposed to do to try to rectify the incident he was charged with."
Collins says that Brown, who receives compensation for his housing as part of his scholarship, left the dorms last spring at Collins's request. "When things appear on the Internet and you see that it says 'sex offender,' they don't go into detail about what he did or what actually happened. So people take it upon themselves to think the guy is a rapist. And none of those things are true about him. He was basically like a lot of college students who might be caught up in being in the wrong place."
Collins understands what it's like to be at the center of controversy. As an assistant coach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from the early 80s to the mid 90s, he was known as one of college ball's most skilled recruiters, and he was enormously popular among Chicago's high school coaches. Then in the late 80s he weathered a scandal in which he was accused of offering potential recruits cash and cars. The NCAA dropped all but a few minor charges and placed the basketball program on probation for three years.
Collins was expected to replace the legendary Lou Henson as head coach after Henson stepped down in 1996, but he lost out to Lon Kruger. Right after Kruger took the job with the Illini, Collins was offered the top spot in Chicago. When he accepted, it was considered a big step for the school's program. He quickly proved himself, in his second year leading UIC in its most successful season ever and taking the school to its first NCAA tournament.
UIC has clearly made basketball a priority. This year the team moved into new headquarters, in the $9.25 million Flames Athletic Center at Roosevelt and Newberry. When it opened the student paper UIC Today noted that the athletic department "expects that the facility will help particularly with recruiting."
Penney Chapman heard that Brown had moved out of the dorms last spring, though she didn't know why. She might have forgotten about him but for another incident this past summer. In late July the student leaders of the summer orientation program were preparing to take a week off. Most of the female leaders were leaving the dorms, but a half dozen or so were staying behind. Chapman, who was getting ready to visit her family in Michigan, returned to her floor after lunch to gather her things and was surprised to find a bunch of strange guys hanging out in the women's bathroom. It turned out the university had rented the dorms to basketball players in town for a conference that weekend and had given them keys to the bathrooms.
The women complained to housing officials and were given the option of moving to a different area--inconvenient given that they'd been in their rooms for two months. They chose to stay put, and the university designated a bathroom for their exclusive use.
"It was a week of hell," says one orientation leader who wants to remain anonymous. "They assigned one bathroom for us which was completely out of the way. We had to walk to the bathroom in our robes and towels, and we would get called names [by the basketball players]. We were very scared. All the girls would sleep in the same room. On the day before they left I got out of the shower and there were three guys there brushing their teeth. I didn't know who they were. They could have locked the door and cornered me. We felt the residence hall was more worried about money than our safety. We were really hurt." Another student says that one of the visitors, a coach, invited her to his room, and when she refused he told her he was going to follow her. He was warned off by campus police, but she says he glared at her for the remainder of the week.
"That's what pushed me to report everything," says Chapman. In late August she sent an E-mail to UIC's vice chancellor for student affairs, Barbara Henley, detailing what had happened to the orientation leaders and accusing the housing department of knowing that a sex offender was living in the dorms the previous year but doing nothing about it. She also complained about the lack of a clear policy regarding what resident assistants should do if someone reported a sexual assault to them. Henley forwarded the E-mail to Michael Landek, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, and he invited Chapman to his office in early September.
Chapman says Landek told her he hadn't known that a convicted sex offender was living in the dorms until he got her E-mail. "He basically said, 'What do you want?' I said, 'I would love for there to be a policy against having people who are on this Web site--registered sex offenders--living in Housing. I don't feel like that is safe at all.' He said everybody has a right to an education and you can't just discriminate against people who are sex offenders. You'd have to screen everybody, and he thought that was unethical. He stopped it there."
Landek invited Chapman to discuss her other concerns with Housing director Anthony Martin and two other administration officials at a meeting in mid-September. But she didn't want to drop the sex-offender issue. "I walked into the room, and the four of them were sitting there already in their own meeting," she says. "I said, I don't feel safe in the residence halls, and this is why. And how do you feel about registered sex offenders in the halls? Had any of them heard of that? No. The other three looked really surprised. 'Who is this? What is his name? What are you talking about?' They just gave the impression they didn't know anything about it."
As an example of the kind of policy UIC could establish, Chapman gave them an article from UIC Today that said sex offenders living on campus at state schools in California were required to register with university police. She says Martin promised to look into it. A couple of weeks later she called to see what he'd done. "He said, 'What was your name again? You're going to have to refresh my memory. I don't remember what happened.'"
That did it for Chapman. A few days later she addressed the school's undergraduate student government at its biweekly meeting, describing her concerns and the administrators' responses. After a few minutes' discussion the group voted to refer the matter to various committees, which Chapman found "a little disappointing." But a reporter for the Chicago Flame was covering the meeting, and on October 19 Chapman and Landek made the student paper's front page. The Flame didn't identify Brown, but it did mention that he was a basketball player.
Both Landek and Martin still insist they had no idea a sex offender was living in the dorms until Chapman brought it to their attention. "We would have taken action if we had known," says Landek. "I'm not sure what--I don't know. But it certainly would have caused us to do something."
At least some administrators knew about Brown. Rebecca Gordon, director of the Office of Women's Affairs, has been pushing for a sex-offender-notification program on campus. Her assistant learned about Brown last January, around the same time Chapman did. "We had a discussion with the provost about it, and the campus police," Gordon says. "We made the administration aware of these issues and stated that there should be a policy in Housing. I guess Student Affairs was made aware through the office of the provost. The issue with the student was that he was admitted with no policy about this, so he signed a contract and he had a legal right to stay there."
Phill Cabeen, a senior who works with the orientation program, says that last winter he attended a meeting on campus safety presented by UIC police chief Bruce Lewis, who specifically raised the issue of Brown living on campus. "He talked about how the UIC police department technically is the local police department for the university community, which means that by law they are required to inform the community when there is a registered sexual offender present. I was really excited because I didn't think anybody would talk about it so openly. When I looked around the rest of this meeting, which was all Student Affairs administrators, no one seemed startled in the least by this revelation that yes, there is this guy living here. Yes, we all know about it, and we're talking about what to do about it. And nothing happened."
Vice provost John Wanat says something did happen. "I don't know exactly what," he says. "But I know that steps were taken, and then the person was no longer in the dormitory."
University spokesman Bill Burton confirms that Lewis notified administrators in Housing, Student Affairs, and other departments about the presence of a sex offender in the dorms and that he "gave a thorough and comprehensive accounting of what was known." Burton also says it's policy for the UIC police to monitor the Chicago Police Department sex-offender registry. In which case they should have noticed that until last week Brown's address on the Web site was still the 700 block of South Halsted--which would put him squarely on campus. Brown apparently reregistered with the police over a month ago (he didn't respond to requests for an interview). The Web site does carry the disclaimer "Although every effort is made to keep this list accurate and current, the city cannot guarantee the accuracy of this information."
Curiously, athletic director James Schmidt says he didn't find out about Brown's past until last spring. "When we did find it out we did not take it lightly," he says. "We talked about it, and quite frankly you cannot, in that situation, impose on his rights either. So we could not ask him to leave." He too defends Brown. "We talked about his housing situation in the future--and for his own protection, not for the protection of others. We felt it would have been in his interest not to live in the Housing facility this year. Obviously there's a stigma that goes along with that label, and I think it would be a situation where people would be fearful because of the national kind of press that rapists and pedophiles and those kinds of people get. The woman involved did not even press charges--it was the state's attorney that wanted to go forward with it. I talked to a lot of the people out at Rutgers University and others, and this is not a bad person. He got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time as a young freshman. He made a serious mistake in judgment and is paying for the crime."
But Chapman thinks UIC's handling of Brown's case is only more evidence of a lax attitude toward security. "I want a policy change," she says. She's now part of a student task force on campus safety that was recently formed in response to an attack on a female student in UIC's Behavioral Sciences Building. "I want something that says you are safer and people care and you don't have to worry about your community not being safe. I don't care if he's a basketball player or a regular student. If you are a registered sex offender I don't want you anywhere near me--especially when I pay so much money to this university."
"I think you're getting a distorted picture of our safety operation," says Landek. "We have an incredibly safe operation. The incidence of crime in our housing is easily limited to the normal things you'd find in any housing." He says UIC has no policy on screening for sex offenders and no policy on what to do when a student's criminal history is discovered.
Housing director Martin says, "I E-mailed about 17 different schools--all of our sister schools in Illinois, schools that sort of compete with us, and schools in the Chicago area--and I didn't find one that inquired about a criminal background on housing applications. My point of view is that the real issue is one for lawmakers. We would have a very difficult time either denying somebody a service or limiting the service we provide based on a criminal background when we do not have such a policy. And I think some people would suggest a policy like that is unlawful." Asked about Chapman's other complaints, Martin says he has no recollection of a master key to a dorm being stolen but if it had been he would have had the locks replaced. He adds that there won't be any more problems between orientation staff and visitors because he won't let staff stay in their rooms if there's a conflict, though he will give them plenty of notice. "We would hope that they would understand that our motivation is to make the best use of space to generate income."
Rebecca Gordon says the Chicago Police Department's sex-offender registry covers the university's obligation to notify the students. "This is fairly new, so I would like to see our pamphlets on safety include the Web site so students can look to see within their own residential communities as well as on campus," she says. "The other issue is whether we should allow a convicted sex offender to live in the halls. What I would like to see on the housing application is a box that says, have you been convicted of a felony, yes or no? If yes, have some kind of review process. I'm not saying that these folks should not have access to education, but this is a particular set of crimes that has a high recidivism rate. And because of the nature of campus housing and our commitment to providing safe housing to our residents, I think we really need to weigh that when we let a convicted felon in the residence halls."
UIC, which houses only 9 percent of its students on campus, is planning a major housing expansion. Landek says the school is struggling to come up with a policy. "We're looking around to get some kind of reasonable response as to what happens if in fact you learn that you have a sex offender in your housing. My position is that we should come up with some type of policy that does not allow an individual to either freely be a part of the housing community or one that shares some type of information with the residents. There's a lot of threads that have to be woven in the blanket before we come up with a policy or a position we can defend that will make our residents feel comfortable and that will not bring on the wrath of the ACLU and everybody else. One might say 'Why don't you do this tomorrow?' If he were still in housing, I think we'd be meeting tomorrow."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.