Campus Violence, Viewed From Afar
The message came from all corners after the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University attacks. It's timely again this month after the violent deaths of students in separate incidents near the campuses of Auburn University, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"There is a fear that colleges and universities are a target," said Jonathan Kassa, executive director of the nonprofit group Security on Campus. "It's very important to be aware that a college community is like any other -- it isn't a protected oasis."
Recently released federal data show a 9 percent decline in violent crimes and a 30 percent drop in property crimes at four-year institutions between 1994 and 2004. Despite those numbers, which are now several years old, some have pointed to an increase in overall concern about campus safety.
At North Carolina, where student body president Eve Carson was shot to death two weeks ago near campus, students are paying tribute and talking about how to prevent future tragedies. The Daily Tar Heel, Chapel Hill's student newspaper, asks as its ongoing poll question: "How safe do you feel on and around the UNC campus?" Roughly 20 percent of those who responded reported feeling either "not safe" or "very unsafe," while more than 55 percent said they feel "safe" or "very safe."
A suspect in Carson's murder has also been charged with the January killing of a Duke University graduate student. Reports that the areas around the campuses have been targeted supports conventional wisdom that students, assumed to be carrying cash, are likely to be victims.
Street crime around North Carolina State University, coupled with campus violence elsewhere, have led to increased fear on campus and should be a wakeup call to students, a columnist writes in N.C. State's student newspaper. Students across the country are urging administrators to tell them how they're safeguarding their campuses.
At Auburn, where a female student was found fatally shot on a highway, and at Arkansas, where yet another undergraduate woman was killed in her off-campus apartment, students are asking many of the same safety questions. University of Southern California also faces decisions about how to address students following a pair of armed robberies in academic buildings.
On those campuses, task force recommendations and police reports help guide the conversation. But what about at colleges that view these cases from afar?
There are, of course, online discussion threads. Terrence C. Kemp, a student at Savannah State University, created a Facebook group, "Stop the Campus Violence ... Enough in Enough," as a way to express his frustration with the pattern of shootings. On the page he writes: "It's already hard enough to get through college having to worry about classes and how I'm going to pay for this fee and that fee.... Now as students we gotta worry about not getting killed."
Kemp said in an e-mail that even with the campus police presence at Savannah State, "it just doesn't feel like it's enough." He said the university seems to ratchet up security after a major tragedy on another campus, but that the increased presence doesn't last.
Kevin Letourneau, a Florida Community College at Jacksonville student and member of the Florida governor's campus safety task force, said from visiting classrooms at several of the system's colleges, he noticed that after a high-profile campus attack, faculty members will often open class with a discussion of campus violence.
From his observations, students' perceptions of campus safety seem to vary greatly.
"I feel safe," Letourneau said. "But I'm still concerned. Am I worried, what if this happens to me? Those thoughts are on my mind and on students' minds in general. Do they feel this sort of thing wouldn't happen? I don't think so."
Some students, he added, have a false sense of security. Colleges are promoting their text messaging alert services, but Letourneau said in such a large system, that method of communicating has its holes.
Todd Sigler, director of the department of public safety at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, said that since the killings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois, his office is receiving more reports of questionable behavior on campus. That's likely a product of more people paying attention to perceived threats or potentially dangerous situations, he said, rather than an indication that the actual number of incidents is rising.
Sigler, who serves on the Illinois governor's campus security task force, said his office has received more requests recently to speak about how to respond to situations where someone on campus is showing violent tendencies.
Cynthia Brown, an assistant professor of criminology at Western Carolina University and a member of UNC's campus safety task force, said students' perceptions of safety seem to have been more damaged by the classroom killings on other campuses than from the individual attacks at other colleges. That's likely explained, she said, by the number of victims in the shooting sprees, and the media coverage the incidents received.
The reality for many campuses is that it's often difficult to get an accurate reading on safety perceptions. Carson's death came just prior to spring break at nearby Duke. Aaron Graves, the university's associate vice president for campus safety and security, said that "while there's been an outpouring of sympathy and concern for safety in general," because the majority of people were away in the immediate aftermath, "it's somewhat difficult to gauge the overall student/parent response at this point as being increased."
Added Kassa: "When people talk about trends, there's not enough data to definitely say people feel more unsafe. The ultimate trend is that people are more aware and are asking more questions."
Kassa said his concern is that while shootings often capture media attention, day-to-day crime on campus -- sexual assaults, for instance -- often go unreported. (The San Jose Mercury News wrote earlier this week about the response to an alleged rape at a Northern California college.)
That's the kind of campus safety issue most likely to be brought up by a parent or student who contacts N.C. State's Women's Center, according to director Shannon L. Johnson. She said after Carson's murder and robberies near or on her campus, several people called about self-defense workshops.
The safety concerns aren't just coming from people who live and work near campus. Jim Boyle, president of the advocacy group College Parents of America, said an online poll conducted by his group each spring showed a spike in parent concern about campus safety from 2006 to 2007. Last year's data came in before Virginia Tech, so Boyle said he expects the 2008 results to show even more concern on the part of parents.
Boyle said he heard from more parents after the Northern Illinois rampage than he did after the two most recent attacks. People who typically contact his group have specific safety concerns, as opposed to comments on the news.
Sigler, the Southern Illinois safety director, said his top concern is what happens once the violent incidents fade into distance memory.
"Can you can get people to stay vigilant and on guard in a period of extended non-emergency?," he asked. "That's the problem we face. When is it paranoia, when is it preparation, when is it lethargy?"