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.”