KANSAS CITY, Mo.— Tuition might not be the most troubling concern for parents sending sons and daughters off to college.
A disturbing pattern of violent crime has erupted across the nation’s campuses – from Yale University, where a female graduate student was strangled, to the University of California at Los Angeles, where a chemistry student was stabbed repeatedly in a lab.
While saying campuses almost always are safer than their surrounding communities, Jonathan Kassa of Security On Campus Inc. acknowledged the headlines can create the opposite impression.
“This has been a very uniquely deadly and brutal first semester, so there is concern,” said Kassa, the executive director of the nonprofit organization, which seeks to reduce campus crime.
This month at Sacramento State University in California, a student was beaten to death in his dormitory by a bat-wielding roommate. A football player was fatally knifed at the University of Connecticut.
In September, a Kansas City woman was killed by a stray bullet on a campus in Atlanta. In May, a student was shot down while working in the bookstore cafe at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
“Those big incidents do worry me, but I worry more about the more regular types of crimes,” said Elise Higgins, a senior at the University of Kansas whose friend was mugged on campus a year ago. “That made me really aware that I can be vulnerable even when I’m on campus around buildings I’m familiar with.”
Kassa said sensational tragedies not only distort the college picture but can distract students from the bigger problems of theft, assault, stalking, sex offenses and alcohol abuse.
Parents and students should be aware of four important points about crimes at colleges: Four of five cases are student on student. Most victims are men. More offenses occur off campus. Alcohol is involved 90 percent of the time.
Since 1990, all colleges and universities in federal financial aid programs annually report crimes on and near their campuses to the U.S. Department of Education. The data are passed to the Justice Department.
In 2007, the latest year for which national numbers are available, 48 killings occurred on the nation’s four-year campuses. That year, however, a mentally ill student gunned down 32 people at Virginia Tech.
The year before, eight people died violently on the nation’s more than 4,000 campuses, down from 11 in 2005.
Since the Virginia Tech rampage, all universities have tried to prepare for the rare incident of a person on campus with a gun.
Robbery is a far more common campus crime. Hundreds occur each year.
According to Security On Campus Inc., sexual assault is increasing. The numbers don’t show it, but officials think it often goes unreported.
Thieves commit most of the crimes at area schools. Crimes of opportunity are most prevalent, campus police said, because students walk away from a laptop or iPod or leave their cars or dorm rooms unlocked.
Whether a school is nestled among cornfields or next to inner-city neighborhoods can affect the amount of crime.
The Web site The Daily Beast recently analyzed 4,000 reports from public and private four-year schools and said the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, Long Island, with 11,831 students, was the safest in the country.
The least-safe campus on the list was Emerson College, an arts-focused school in Boston. In The Daily Beast’s survey, many urban campuses fared poorly, including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Maryland at Baltimore and Tufts University in Medford, Mass., outside Boston.
A few weeks ago, a University of Missouri-Kansas City student was mugged walking home from the business school. Kipp Cozad, a UMKC graduate student from Liberty, Mo., heard about it, “but I have never felt uncomfortable here.”
Cozad said she takes many night classes, but “I park fairly close and I never find myself drifting off where there aren’t people around.”
Surprisingly, experts say crime can occur less often on urban campuses because students there expect it and act accordingly. At more rural schools, students might feel more secure and take fewer precautions.
April Beffer, who is majoring in social work, goes everywhere on the UMKC campus with a group, but she still feels more secure on campus than at home, especially after recent rapes against women who were not students in and near the Waldo area.
“I’m getting a dog,” Beffer said.
Essence Smith, an 18-year-old UMKC freshman from Independence, Mo., said she keeps her belongings close, locks her doors and stays aware of her surroundings.
“I usually feel so safe at UMKC because there are emergency buttons everywhere you go,” she said.
In the last two years, campuses nationwide have installed electronic alert systems, key card systems for dorms and more lighting; created student security escorts; and re-evaluated emergency response plans.
This year Higgins, the community affairs director for the Kansas University Student Senate, is pushing for improved off-campus lighting. Recently, 300 KU students attended a self-defense class.
Mary Todd, the director of the K-State Women’s Center, said the center was partnering with student government, the city of Manhattan, the Aggieville Business Association and Fort Riley to improve lighting on streets and get high-resolution video cameras. The campus ROTC and the Ali Kemp Foundation offer self-defense training.
Crime comes in spurts and cycles, but for the most part is fairly steady, Don Stubbings, a crime prevention officer for the K-State Police Department said.
“Let’s say burglars move on or near campus one year; the next year they are gone,” Stubbings said. “That crime tapers off, and then a different crime is up.”
“Campus crime is not new,” Kassa said. “You can’t stop it all. You can’t control everything, search everyone, but you can reduce the risks and strengthen the response. Be prepared.”