Improving Campus Safety

Like any large forum, college campuses can be dangerous places. Small cities unto themselves, they see thousands come, go, eat, drink, work and play. Unlike small cities, however, they are populated with 18- to 25-year-olds likely away from home for the first time. Trusting, eager to fit in and with the decision-making region of their brains not quite yet mature, these undergraduates fall prey to a variety of crimes.

The most common crime on campuses today is“theft,” according to Daniel Carter, senior vice president, Security On Campus, Inc.“The incidents are so high that there are no national numbers.” Carter reports that bicycles and laptops remain the most popular items stolen, as they are often left unattended. More often than not, students don’t go public with the incidents. “Campuses have initiated programs to label valuable items so they can be returned if recovered,” says Carter. “It’s all pretty low-tech and old fashioned.”

While it may not seem so to the cash-strapped student who just lost a valuable item, theft is not deemed serious enough to be a reportable crime under The Clery Act. The more personal robbery and intrusive burglary, however, must be reported. The U.S. Department of Education’s latest numbers from 2003 show that on-campus burglary at public, four-year institutions stands at 12,211 events. Robbery, under the same criteria, is at 730 reported events.

Fueled by Alcohol

“These crimes are no where near as prevalent as sexual assault and alcohol abuse,” says Kimberly Pfaff, director of the Behavior Sciences Department of Business Controls, Inc., a professional corporate investigation and consulting firm. “Alcohol-related arrests have increased in the last 15 years.” Pfaff credits this upswing to campus and local police departments taking alcohol abuse more seriously.

She also notes the rise in eating disorders in young woman as a factor in alcohol abuse. “Women see beer as fattening so they choose hard liquor,” Pfaff explains. “As a result, they are drinking an exorbitant number of shots.” Often with disastrous results, as seen in 2004 when Colorado saw two back-to-back, on-campus, alcohol-related deaths. In answer, the state passed a law that grants immunity to any underage drinkers who call 911 to help a friend.

To get a handle on the problem before the party runs out of control, Pfaff and Megan Rowland Levi, a behavioral sciences specialist at Business Controls, Inc. strongly suggest peer counseling. “Student-to-student mentorship is more effective than adult lecturing in this area,” says Rowland Levi. “It becomes less about ‘don’t drink because it’s bad’ to ‘this is what happens when you have three beers, this is what happens when you have 10.’”

And what happens is serious stuff. Along with alcohol poisoning come increases in crime, from vandalism to sexual assault. Sexual assault, in fact, remains a huge — and hugely underreported — reality of the college experience. “The Department of Justice says that up to one in four students are victims of a completed sexual assault during their undergraduate career,” says Carter. “The DOJ also speculates that fewer than five percent of these crimes ever get reported.”

Susan Marine, director of Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, agrees. “National studies suggest the disparity between experienced and reported events in the 90 percent range,” she says. Reasons for not reporting include trauma, guilt, fear and an unwillingness to name names.

Schools, in Carter’s opinion, can handle these assaults the right way. “A coordinated response like Harvard’s office dedicated to help survivors through the trauma is appropriate and required by Title IX,” he says. The wrong response not only further traumatizes students, it can land your school in PR hell, as is the case in Ohio State University’s mishandling of a 2002 rape report. The school was sued under The Cleary Act and profiled on a recent installment of Dateline NBC.

Yet even Marine admits that her program possesses neither the power to stop a rape from happening nor to hold rapists accountable. “We focus on being a safe place for students to report the incident and find out what she or he can do next,” she says. “That doesn’t translate to greater safety.” For that, she stresses common sense safety precautions like well-lit buildings, trimmed bushes and vigilant access control. A more visible college police presence to keep outsiders off campus may also help, but as “80 percent of campus crime is student on student,” according to Carter, it is not the only answer.

Identity Theft: The New Kid in Town

While theft, rape and assault have been problems for years, a new crime is grabbing headlines and making its way on campus. “We’ve received reports of identity theft from a few colleges,” says Pfaff. It’s no wonder considering the numbers she offers: 49 percent of students get credit card applications weekly, 30 percent of students throw these out before destroying them and 30 percent never or rarely reconcile their credit card statements or checking accounts. Schools are no better, with 48 percent of them posting grades by social security number.

“Campuses need to conduct background checks on employees, have sufficient systems security features in place and educate students on how to protect themselves,” says Pfaff.

All this safety data can and should be used by security offices to make changes. “Schools can identify pockets of crime and address the issue,” says David Bergeron director, Office of Postsecondary Education, Policy and Budget Development Staff. “Students should look at the data and think about how they can avoid becoming a victim.”