Will Your College Be Safe?

We can all recall those terrifying images of Virginia Tech, where so many students and faculty were senselessly murdered in cold blood. There have been other similar campus slayings over the years. But, thankfully, those high-profile situations are the exception. The real issues concerning college campus safety involve individual encounters, such as assaults, robberies, random violence, and incursions by non-college individuals who prey on those students who are unprepared to deal with campus safety issues.

For you about-to-be college freshmen, and you parents of about-to-be and current college students, it would pay to do some research concerning the facts about college safety issues. How should one prepare to deal with potential problems on campus? What resources do colleges offer to help protect their students? How safe is the college where you will be this fall? These are all legitimate questions that need answering.

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Two recent articles offer some excellent thoughts on how to think about campus safety and how it relates to you. Here are some excerpts:

Pamela Rambo in the Norfolk College Admissions Examiner notes:

Don’t let the welcoming banners, landscaped lawns and orientation activities at colleges this fall lull you into a false sense of personal security.  A college campus is a public place often no more secure than your local grocery store or shopping mall.  Colleges and universities work hard to keep campuses safe.  But students still need to be observant while on campus to avoid becoming a crime victim.

College campuses are inviting places.  There is a feeling of belonging and inclusion that makes students feel at home.  Just keep in mind that not everyone you meet on campus is enrolled and that all types of people enroll and work in higher education settings.  Just like at the mall, use common sense when you meet new people and don’t leave your backpack or laptop unattended.

If you live in campus housing, observe posted dorm safety rules.  Don’t let strangers in who say they forgot their card key or entry code.  Don’t prop outer doors to buildings open.  When you attend campus events for organizations, be careful what and how much you drink and don’t allow anyone to isolate you from others.  When you leave, walk with a friend or take advantage of free transportation available on many campuses to get from places like the library back to campus housing.

A look at state campus crime statistics for institutions in Virginia shows that the crimes reported with the most frequency are sexual offenses, followed by assaults, car thefts and robberies.

Students and parents can view crime statistics for any college online at http://ope.ed.gov/security.  The reports document all crime reported to campus police or local police that were committed on campus for a three year period.   Crime statistics reported by Old Dominion University, Norfolk State University and Virginia State University showed that car thefts and robberies were the most frequently reported crimes. At the College of William and Mary, Virginia Wesleyan College, George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University, sexual assaults were the most frequently reported crimes.  The most frequently reported crimes at Virginia Tech were murder and assault.  Virginia Tech’s statistics however reflect one event in which nearly three dozen people were killed.

Parents and students need to talk about safety on campus as students prepare to pack up for the trip back to campus in the fall.  The first part of that discussion should be a review of crime statistics at your college as well as the safety measures and services in place to help students.

And Jennifer Epstein, in USAToday’s Inside Higher Ed cautions:

In the aftermath of the 2004 murder of a student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, by a classmate with a history of violence against women, the deceased student’s family came to see the decision-making of the university’s admissions office as one of the major factors leading to her death.

After a lawsuit, the North Carolina system began requiring all 11 of its campuses to conduct criminal background checks on students whose records raise red flags. As a panel discussion Wednesday at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Attorneys here made clear, North Carolina is not alone. At institutions across the country, admissions officers and student affairs administrators are starting to consider conducting criminal background checks on applicants or admitted students in an extra step toward campus safety.

But the questions of whether and how to conduct student background checks are anything but resolved. The panel included a law professor who has studied the use of criminal background checks in admissions, an administrator from UNC-Wilmington who’s been involved in implementing the system’s policy, and a determined opponent of using checks during the admissions process.

At the start of the discussion, Darby Dickerson, vice president and dean at the Stetson University College of Law, described criminal background checks as a “legal and policy jigsaw puzzle” of intertwined concerns about campus safety, legal risk and individual rights.

“Implementing background checks as part of the admissions process is not a panacea,” Dickerson said, but such reviews can be “part of a more comprehensive campus safety” policy.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he didn’t see background checks doing much to actually make campuses safer. “We haven’t mastered the science of human behavior,” he said. It would be “active discrimination” to enact policies that bar applicants with criminal records from admission, Nassirian said, and impossible to determine which students with records would recidivate and which ones wouldn’t.

In a recent AACRAO survey, 66% of responding institutions reported having any mechanism to collect criminal justice information from students. Private and four-year institutions were more likely than public or two-year institutions to conduct some kind of screening.

The most common means of getting that information, the survey found, was through questions on self-disclosure questions on their own applications or on the Common Application. Of the 144 institutions that reported collecting criminal justice information from all applicants, only ten said they used criminal background checks . . .

. . . Half the students asked to submit to checks never do and take themselves out of the running for admission to the university. Among those who do undergo checks, Leonard said, 92% are cleared without further examination. The screening process, she said, “clearly sends a message about the campus culture — its priorities.”

Nassirian said he thought that message was a big — and unwarranted — “keep out” sign for anyone with a criminal past. Colleges, he said, ought to try to serve students with criminal pasts who have resolved to overcome their histories. “If you don’t think people can change, you ought to be in a different line of work” from higher education, he said. “Educating people and putting them on the right path is a social responsibility.”

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So, then, what’s the bottom line about campus safety today? Easy: Better safe than sorry.

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