LordN/ShutterstockAs parents confront ballooning college costs and shrinking acceptance rates, they are finding themselves with an even bigger, more basic worry: Which campuses are safe? Colleges seem like idyllic and secure places, and for the most part, they are. But ivy-covered walls can’t keep out every bad element.
In 2011, the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter warned schools they stood to lose millions in federal funding if they failed to investigate sexual assault reports. Just four years later, there totaled some 344 cases and 55 colleges were under investigation for the way they handled sexual violence cases.
Of course, this is not what parents and students think about when they visit America’s serene campuses. There’s a false sense of security, says Harry Nolan, a safety consultant in New York City. “Students see guards patrolling at night or a video camera monitoring the dorm entrance and think, Nothing bad can happen to me,” he explains. “People don’t know that safety controls are often very lax.”
The idea that a bucolic university environment can be a danger zone hit home at Virginia Tech last April, when a deranged senior opened fire on the school’s Blacksburg campus, killing 32 and injuring many more before killing himself. The massacre was an extreme example of the threats that can lurk on campus, but it focused attention on the new risks students face — and on what schools are doing to limit those threats.
Students typically feel safe around peers, but 80 percent of all crimes on campus are committed by other students. Alison Kiss, program director for Security on Campus, Inc., an advocacy group in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, says the first six weeks of college require special vigilance. Kiss refers to this period as the red zone and says that’s when her group sees a 30 percent spike in calls from student victims: “It’s when incoming freshmen are most vulnerable to alcohol abuse, hazing and crimes like acquaintance rape. It’s the most dangerous period of a student’s campus life.”
One of the most extreme cases in recent history was that of Eastern Michigan University senior Laura Dickinson, found dead in her dorm room on December 15, 2006. From the start, local police considered Dickinson’s death suspicious. One reason: When they found her half-naked body, there was a pillow covering her face. The school’s response, as posted on its website the next morning: “We are fully confident of the safety and security of our campus environment.”
For weeks, university officials told students and Dickinson’s parents there was no foul play. (The medical examiner later ruled the cause of death was probably asphyxiation.) It wasn’t until two months later, when police arrested another student, 20-year-old Orange Taylor III, and charged him with the murder that the stonewalling stopped.
A security camera captured this sequence: Dickinson, holding a white bag, entering the dorm at about 11 p.m. on December 12; Taylor trying repeatedly to get into the locked dorm about five hours later, then slipping in behind another student with a key card; finally, Taylor exiting 90 minutes later, a white bag under his sweatshirt. With his DNA allegedly found on the victim’s body, Taylor was charged with murder and sexual assault. He pleaded not guilty. His first trial ended with a hung jury; a new trial date hasn’t been set yet. An investigation found that by not promptly dealing with and reporting Dickinson’s death as a crime, the university had violated a 1990 federal law known as the Jeanne Clery Act. Named for a Lehigh University student raped and killed in her dorm room, the law requires colleges to report campus crimes to the federal Office of Postsecondary Education in a timely fashion and notify students of threats. In the wake of the probe, three Eastern Michigan administrators, including the university’s president, were ousted. The school agreed to pay the Dickinson family $2.5 million and launched new safety policies.
The high-profile cases capture our attention. Take the 2008 case of the St. John’s University freshman, who donned a Fred Flintstone mask and walked onto the New York campus carrying a loaded rifle in a plastic bag. A security guard spotted the end of the barrel and then helped subdue the gunman before shots were fired. As police swarmed the area, panicked students holed up in classrooms. Within eight minutes, they got a text message on their cell phones telling them that an armed man had been arrested on campus and that they should stay put. Messages kept coming for the next three hours while police scoured the campus.
Best Practices: It was the first use of an emergency notification system the school had activated a month earlier. St. John’s also has six plasma-screen “e-boards” placed in strategic spots to flash warnings. Says Assistant Vice President Dominic Scianna, “In the world we live in, you just can’t be too careful.”
To a burglar, a dorm can look like a treasure trove. After all, the typical student is likely to have between $5,000 and $10,000 worth of electronic gear stashed in his or her room. And, as both the University of Cincinnati and Eastern Michigan examples show, gaining access to a dorm isn’t as difficult as one might think.
“When I do college inspections,” says Robert Siciliano, a Boston-based college-security consultant, “I often find fifty percent of windows in first- and second-floor dorm rooms unlocked. The front entrance may be guarded by an attendant who checks IDs, but it’s likely the back door is propped open with a brick, because kids forget their keys.”
And students aren’t necessarily any more mindful when they’re out and about, hustling between dorms, classes and parties, especially at night. Anthony Dariano, a 22-year-old San José State University student, was walking his girlfriend to her car after leaving a frat party at 3 a.m. when two men in hooded jackets approached. One whipped out a gun, and the other grabbed the girl’s purse and Dariano’s wallet and cell phone. “I never thought it would happen to us,” he says. “Now I’m a lot more careful about where I am and how late it is.”
Best Practices: Some schools are going high-tech to fight crime. At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, more than 100 so-called smart cameras (they use a computer algorithm to detect suspicious activity) keep a constant eye on campus — and beyond. The system recently spied a man in an alley behind an off-campus residence peering into sleeping students’ rooms. A campus command center was alerted. When the man got into a car, a camera zoomed in on his license plate and then fed the number to police. Minutes later, when an armed robbery occurred nearby, the description of the suspect matched that of the would-be Johns Hopkins intruder, and the police made an arrest.
It’s not just outside forces that can harm students. Sometimes psychological issues can wreak havoc on a young man or woman. Seventeen years ago, says Connie Horton, PhD, director of Pepperdine University’s counseling center, students at the California school wanted to talk about missing home, love woes or test anxiety. Not now, she says: “At least half of the students we see are struggling with depression. We also deal with bipolar disorder, psychotic breaks, and eating and anxiety disorders.”
Studies found that the rate of depression among college students seeking mental-health services more than doubled since 1989. And according to the American Psychological Association, suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among students (after accidents).
To counter the trend, many schools have beefed up counseling. “The kid may say ‘My grades are so bad, I don’t see a way out of this’ or ‘I can’t imagine tomorrow,'” Horton says. Frequent crying, agitation, insomnia or sleeping excessively, lack of energy and loss of enjoyment can also signal depression. Horton suggests parents “listen for a sense of hopelessness” during calls home.
Ask if a college can handle such issues, says Gregory Eells, PhD, Cornell University’s director of counseling and psychiatric services. Is there at least one full-time counselor per 1,300 to 1,500 students? How long does it take to get an appointment? “At Cornell, the ratio is one to eight hundred,” he says. “And any student can speak to a counselor the same day by phone for 20 minutes.”
Also, parents should ask whether they’ll be told if a child breaks down. Some schools don’t share such news, but, Eells says, “our lawyers say we can assume kids under 21 are dependents of their parents, which gives us more flexibility in what we can tell families.”
Best Practices: Cornell is working to reduce what has historically been a high suicide rate. Staff from faculty to janitors are trained to spot and report signs of emotional illness. A sharp-eyed custodian recently helped a young woman get treatment for her bulimia. Since the training program began three years ago, Cornell hasn’t had a suicide. In the prior 15 years, there were two a year on average.
About two out of five students binge-drink (downing at least five drinks at a time for men; at least four for women). Roughly one in four has binged at least ten times in a month — a big jump from the early 1990s, according to a 2007 study by Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
All that alcohol exacts a heavy price. Liquor contributes to an estimated 1,700 student deaths and nearly 600,000 injuries each year. It’s also a factor in some 95 percent of violent crime on campus — and not just among perpetrators. Experts note that because thugs often prey on the unwary, a drunk student is well on the way to becoming a crime victim.
Best Practices: Northern Illinois University in DeKalb uses a variety of media to convince students that most of their peers actually drink in moderation. In one 10-year period, the campaign was credited with helping to cut heavy alcohol use by 44 percent. During the same period, Northern Illinois saw a 44 percent dip in students hurting themselves and a 76 percent drop in students hurting others.
Among the most troubling campus trends is the increase in fires. Campus-housing blazes nearly doubled between 1998 and 2005, jumping from 1,800 to 3,300. Experts say fires pose a particular risk on campus for a simple reason: “A common theme in fatal fires is disabled smoke detectors,” says Paul Martin of the nonprofit Center for Campus Fire Safety. Some students, he says, plunder the detectors for free 9-volt batteries; some can’t stand to hear them go off while cooking. Other potential dorm-fire starters: halogen lamps and outlets overloaded with the power strips and extension cords of plugged-in students.
Martin says many students don’t have a healthy respect for the damage fire can do: “A fire can engulf a whole building in three to five minutes.”
Best Practices: At the University of Kentucky in Lexington, fire drills come with a twist: Safety officials use nontoxic theatrical smoke to simulate the real thing. “We post evacuation routes in every room and teach kids to run away from the smoke,” says university fire marshal Garry Beach. “During the first drill, 48 out of 50 students ran through the smoke.” In a real fire, that would be a mistake: “Afterward,” Beach says, “we told the kids they would’ve been dead. It’s a scare tactic, but they learned a lesson that might save their lives.”