Every August, hundreds of thousands of students march off to the most challenging, exciting, and mind-altering stage in their lives — they are going to college. College and university campuses are not new, but they never get old either. The forever-young campus culture pulsates with life. It’s like a free-thinking laboratory of growth where freshman caterpillars magically morph into graduating butterflies. Now they can fly, where before they could only crawl.
But that transition is wrought with peril. College campuses are risky. Every parent knows this. Realistic parents, skeptical elders, and seasoned seniors scoff at naïve freshman who have yet to realize the risks involved in campus life. But just how dangerous is college? What do we make of real dangers like sexual assault, hazing, and gun violence? And lastly, what do we do about these dangers?
It would be easy to resort to alarmism and reactionary manipulation. But the effort here is not to demonize schools, foretelling bleak scenes of woe and despair. No, this is a happy piece. College and university campuses are still gardens of opportunity for millions of students each year. Our effort here is to protect against spoilage with some realism and wisdom. In this three-part series on campus safety, we’ll address major factors in campus safety and how to reduce your own risks on campus. Part One gives an overview of campus safety with a focus on property crime and gun-violence. Part Two addresses sexual assault and prevention. Part Three addresses hazing and bullying. The scene we see is not gloom and doom, but it does require some maturity, self-awareness, and responsibility. We don’t need to be alarmed, but we should be prepared.
What Makes a Campus Dangerous?
City crime is a safety concern commonly identified in surveys evaluating campus safety. As a general rule, colleges and universities are as safe as their surroundings. Schools don’t have the leisure of hovering in the air, in crime-free clouds, disconnected from any surrounding cities. Schools are planted on the ground, in cities that already have their own crime rates. Schools can expect higher crime rates where their surrounding cities have crime-related features like heavy urbanization, heavy traffic, depressed neighborhoods, city mismanagement (and corruption), known gang activity, frequent rioting and protests, a history of crime, and other factors.
On the positive side, this point also means that safer cities tend to have safer schools. Parents and aspiring students, however, should be aware that while that correlation can help inform their school decision, city crime rates are not exactly the same thing as campus crime rates, even if, statistically it’s impossible to perfectly divide the two.
One might try to distinguish city and campus crime by dividing crimes according to “on-campus” or “off-campus” locations. But this distinction breaks down for a few reasons. For one thing, college towns have college students on and off campus. Students can be victims or perpetrators regardless of whether they are on or off campus. “Off-campus” crimes can involve students, and “on-campus” crime can involve non-students.
Also, this distinction breaks down for schools whose campuses overlap and interweave with the rest of the city. For example, the College of Charleston (CoC) in Charleston, South Carolina is scattered across most of the downtown Charleston area. To be “on-campus” is somewhat arbitrary when student housing includes rental space above an off-campus pizza shop, and “off-campus" includes a bike store tucked between two CoC buildings.
Property Crime and Shared Space
Generally speaking, college campuses are safe because the highest crime risks for students are preventable crimes springing from a combination of irresponsible behavior multiplied by communal property and shared space. Campus life is a vibrant society of shared spaces including classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, lounges, libraries, and of course, dorm rooms. These shared spaces take on a risky dimension largely because college students have been given relative freedom but aren’t exactly world-renowned for their responsible behavior. Property crime becomes a live possibility with so much shared usage of the same property. In this setting, most campus crimes can be prevented by watching your personal property better, using the buddy system, and staying sober.
According to College Crime Watch, the three most common crimes on college campuses are burglary, motor vehicle theft, and sexual assault. Of course, this does not count underage drinking, which is also a crime and would easily surpass the combined totals of all three of the listed crimes. But the point is that burglary is fairly preventable by keeping one’s dorm room locked and monitoring your property in public, especially laptops, tablets, and phones. You can reduce the risk of a stolen car by parking in secure lots, using public transportation where possible, and locking your car doors.
Also remember that exact statistics on campus safety are fairly impossible to measure. A great deal of criminal and reckless behavior goes unreported. For example, driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI) are rarely reported unless the drunk driver is flagged down by an officer or charged in an auto accident. Also, underage drinking is notoriously underreported — perhaps it is simply too rampant. Likewise, sexual assault often goes unreported as victims may not even realize they were criminally violated, or they may just be too ashamed or too scared to speak up.
While the factors noted above make it difficult to arrive at an exact measure of student safety on a given campus, we can tell that at least those reported crime rates on campus are happening and, even if the school officials are doing everything possible to ensure a safe campus, those statistics still offer good reason for students to take a proactive stance in protecting their own safety.
Trends in Campus Crime
How do crime trends look these days? The statistics actually suggest a downward trend in campus crime. Campus crimes are declining overall. The Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics reports about 10,000 fewer cases in two of the three most commonly-reported offenses on college campuses: burglary and vehicular theft. However, a slight increase of about 1,000 reported sexual assault cases occurred between 2011 and 2013. We’ll address sexual assault in Part Two of this series. For now, we’re focusing on assault and burglary.
While these Department of Education stats are current through 2013, more recent events seem to have negatively impacted campus crime rates. Tensions surrounding the 2016 presidential election, immigration and racial justice protests, together with “free speech” counter-protests on many campuses have together generated a spike in property crimes. Campuses like UC–Berkeley and UCLA were hard hit by the rise in protests and, incidentally, topped the Business Insider’s list of “Most Dangerous Colleges in America.” for that very reason. Both reported over 900 property crimes. It’s not clear, however, that property crimes are rising as a general trend or if they are spiking only because of targeted protests in recent years. It could be that these are anomalies rather than trends.
Moreover, protest-related property crimes tend to be about damaging public property. In these scenes, students don’t generally have to worry about their car being stolen, or their laptop or tablet being snatched from their bag. Those aren’t the kinds of property crimes involved in campus protests or riots. More likely, a street sign will be torn down, a window broken, a security vehicle damaged, or perhaps even a fire set in a common area.
Aside from a recent localized spikes in property crimes, on some campuses, the average campus safety numbers still seem to be trending well for students. According to the Department of Education, a downward trend in theft and violent crimes continues through 2016.
Gun-Free Zones and School Shootings
Perhaps the most alarming threat to campus safety is gun violence. College campuses are typically “gun-free” zones. That spells a trade-off in terms of dangers. Gun-free policies do reduce the number of guns. So, gun-free zones tend to have less gun-related violent crime and fewer gun-related accidents compared to gun zones. The drawback is that unarmed students are easier targets than armed students. The trade-off is a lower overall crime rate but less ability for self-defense in emergencies. The most notorious example of this problem is the phenomenon of school shootings.
Everytown Research, a gun-safety advocacy group, reports that since 2013, there have been at least 223 school shootings in K–12 and college settings, all of which were gun-free zones at the time. These shootings resulted in fifty-nine deaths and 124 non-fatal injuries. The United States unfortunately has a high incidence of gun violence anyway. Yet students around the world clamor to attend the US colleges and universities.
School shootings are shocking to the senses. They are smothered in major media coverage and anti-gun lobbying, as well as backlash from the pro-gun lobby. But setting aside the wider political and media controversies, we should note that schools themselves are getting wise to this problem and implementing sensible reforms such as expanding their “fire drills” and “tornado drills” to include protocols for “active shooter” scenarios. Other reforms include redesigning buildings to have better “lock down” capabilities, to require security clearance, to be equipped with the capacity for mandatory emergency alert communications, and to have many open lines of sight. For students, the campus experience may include student IDs, criminal background checks, heightened campus security and police patrols, metal detectors, anonymous reporting, and so on. School shootings may get a lot of press and, when they do occur, the horror of the occurrence cannot be overstated. However, their frequency should not be exaggerated. They are rare, they are scattered, and they don’t raise the rate of violence on campus in a statistically significant way.
Of course, there exists a perennial debate about gun control. While we can admit that armed students can defend themselves in a way that unarmed students could not, we should also remember that most gunshot deaths in the United States are from suicide, and not terrorists or rampage shooters. According to reports, two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides, and half of all suicides are by firearms.
When people are well-trained and responsible with their guns, they can serve heroically in a dire situation. But college students are already a risky demographic for suicide, with suicide being the second leading cause of death for people ages nineteen-to-thirty-four [PDF]. There is some wisdom behind keeping campuses gun-free.
To learn more about suicide prevention, or if you or somebody you know may be at risk, please take a look at our multi-part examination of the issue immediately.
We should also remember that college students often drink irresponsibly, and guns and heavy drinking do not mix well at all. Alcohol is, perhaps, the single most critical factor in campus safety. It’s also one of the most adored elements of college life. Alcohol unmistakably influences criminality. Roughly 40% of convicted inmates, in jail, were under the influence of alcohol when they broke the law. That is, their moral laxity was well lubricated. Alcohol cannot be ignored as a complicating cause in campus crime, including gun violence.
We will not settle the gun control debate here, but we do well to remember that college culture adds critical risk factors to the mix which need to be considered in weighing the wisdom of “gun free zones” on campus.
How to Protect Yourself From Gun Violence and Property Crime
There is no simple solution to all gun violence and property crime. The greatest safety measure you can take is to be smart. That may sound vague, but there are too many specifics for any given situation, meaning that no single action will mitigate all risk factors. Each individual student needs to approach their college education with some common sense. Most of the dangers you may face during college can be prevented by:
- Using the buddy system so you’re never alone in a dark alley,
- Staying sober,
- Guarding your drinks — so no one can slip anything into it while you’re not looking, and
- Guarding your property by locking your dorm and car doors, monitoring your valuables in public, and so on.
More advanced measures may include self-defense classes, martial arts, tactical training, or carrying a legal weapon such as pepper-spray or a licensed firearm (in gun-friendly zones). Some measure of self-defense isn’t a bad idea in general. College campuses are generally quite safe, but we still have to admit that some dangers are never entirely avoidable. Therefore, you will ultimately carry the greatest responsibility for your own safety. No campus is safe enough to protect you from yourself if you act irresponsibly, or if your buddies start acting stupid. College offers a reasonable measure of safety, but that’s no protection from unreasoning idiocy.
Be smart. Stay safe.
The Campus Safety Check Series
Campus Safety Check, Part 1: Property Crimes and Gun Violence
Campus Safety Check, Part 2: Sexual Assault and Rape Culture
Campus Safety Check, Part 3: Hazing and Bullying