Campus and Community Violence

The university held a Town Hall Meeting on Campus Safety here last weekend, which, for better or worse, coincided with Dads Weekend. Parents with distinguished-looking silver hair, wearing New Balance running shoes and the most expensive versions of school-pride parkas, lined up before the meeting to buy pumpkin spice lattes, hot chocolate, and cranberry scones from the coffee shop in the union.


November 20, 2010

The university held a Town Hall Meeting on Campus Safety here last weekend, which, for better or worse, coincided with Dads Weekend. Parents with distinguished-looking silver hair, wearing New Balance running shoes and the most expensive versions of school-pride parkas, lined up before the meeting to buy pumpkin spice lattes, hot chocolate, and cranberry scones from the coffee shop in the union. Several hundred folding chairs had been set up for them in the small courtyard a few feet away, and the cappuccino steamer loudly hissed and bubbled as technicians tried to do sound checks from the media platform at the back of the room.

The meeting began with a statement by a Vice Chancellor, who introduced a representative from the Office of the Dean of Students, the Director of Housing, and the University Police Chief. A half-dozen of her officers stood around the room.

The occasion for the town hall meeting was the recent rise in the number of assaults and other crimes on campus, especially what’s being called “sport” beatings of young male students by two or more other men, some of them in broad daylight. More specifically, it seems, the meeting was a reaction to news of those crimes, reported in accordance with the federal Clery Act, which requires collection and publication of crime statistics in postsecondary settings and the efforts taken to address them. There has also been a “greater transparency” by campus police since the Spring semester of 2009, when they began sending crime alerts to everyone on campus through university e-mail. At the meeting the University Police Chief said she knew then that that step would bring a wave of parental concern, and it did, though crime was not up then, she says. It is now.

From August 15 to October 31, there were 41 of these “sport” assaults, 35 of them in the campus district. From 100 suspects, 25 people have been arrested. The state’s attorney has pledged to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, the Chief said, and there were no students among those arrested.

There have also been at least five peeping toms and one related sexual assault in the residence halls. The Director of Housing said there have always been housing intrusions (indeed, school publications from a hundred years ago trumpet the fun of panty raids), but as he pointed out, the big difference now is technology. Recent incidents have included attempts to record video of students in the showers with cell phones, which could be posted on the internet within minutes. Indeed, one of my students was a victim, though she yelled and chased the man out, and the police were quickly on the scene looking for him. (He hasn’t been caught.)

The Chief said campus police always work closely with police forces in both our twin cities for patrols and investigations. In addition, the campus department has been using uniformed and plainclothes officers on overtime and will soon hire three more fulltime officers. They also use 30 “student patrollers” and will hire more. Dozens of additional security cameras are being installed around campus; there are currently about 200, and the Chief said there will be “thousands” in coming years. Cameras on mass transit buses, installed with federal money for homeland security, can be accessed by police too, and the Chief said it’s been helpful since the perception is that suspects often escape the scenes of crimes by city bus.

The Chief explained that programs such as Safe Rides, Safe Walks, self-defense classes, and safety education during New Student Week would all be getting more resources. The Director of Housing said all dorms are in outer-door lockdown and will remain that way for the rest of the semester and maybe longer than that. The panel put a lot of emphasis on the fact that they all have children themselves, some of college age, so their concern for the children of the parents in the room and of those watching by live stream was not merely professional.

The students who go to school here are largely from the suburbs and exurbs of Chicago, are predominantly white, and from middle- and upper-middle class families. Beyond normal concern over a genuinely troubling situation, the comments and questions reflected a mindset of those with privilege who demand what they believe they’ve paid for. I find this completely understandable and sympathetic, but it’s bound to lead to some frustration, since there appears not to be any one simple cause, such as some town/gown divide, or a single solution.

For instance, the Chief apologized to students in the room then said they just didn’t have the instincts parents had, because they were just starting their adult lives. Several students looked at each other, grinned, or rolled their eyes, but the fact is that many electronic locks installed in response to the increase in crime have been “defeated” in a matter of hours or days because students found them inconvenient. And some of the assaults continue to happen at one or two or three in the morning to students walking alone and sometimes intoxicated or plugged into electronic devices and therefore less aware of their surroundings.

After statements with PowerPoint slides from each of the panel members, the floor was opened to questions. Some who rose to speak were shaking with anger; others thanked the authorities for being there. The questions ranged from rumor-driven (are the assaults gang initiations?) to administratively inapplicable (what about security in private residence halls not run by the uni?). An angry student and then an angry parent or two claimed the police spent more time on underage drinking than on student safety; the chief called on one of her officers in the back of the crowd, who said there’d been only 75 tickets written for drinking the entire last year. They added that they couldn’t speak, of course, for the city police, who had other priorities, so parents needed to ask them about that. This led to a demand to know why those police chiefs weren’t present, and the campus chief admitted she hadn’t thought to invite them.

A man asked if a private security firm had been hired from the outside to determine campus security needs; the response was no but that money was not part of the calculation in making things right. Another breathless man spoke up to inform everyone that his business did that sort of thing and he could tell the university many useful things at acceptable terms.

There was more than one question about the ban on stun guns. (Won’t be lifted; a policeman said they don’t want 42,000 students walking around with them, and besides, they’re more likely to get used on their owners if they don’t know how to use them). Someone asked about the “blue light” emergency kiosks around campus meant to be used to call police. (A pre-cell phone technology, the chief said; out of “hundreds” of calls, most were pranks, and campus police are looking into small handheld GPS devices any student could carry.) A mom wanted to know who would call her if her student was attacked and taken to a hospital. (The Emergency Dean would do it, the rep from that office said, if they heard of it; otherwise, it was like anybody else: The student would call his or her own parents, or the hospital would notify if the patient was unable to call.)

The Chief said crime is down nationwide but is up not only here but at a couple of other Big 10 campuses. She said we could check out the figures ourselves through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports or the U.S. Department of Education’s Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool, though she warned that individual numbers mean little since they depend on the size and other demographics of communities that house the universities and colleges. But the Vice Chancellor said she’d been hearing mutterings about crime at meetings she attended; she wondered if it was the economy.

An African-American professor and two students expressed dismay at racial profiling in the crime reports, as well as out-of-proportion police presence after African-American campus events, and the prospect of vigilantism by white students. The chief said that race was a descriptor in everyday life and that her main business was to get out information that would lead to arrests. She said when she didn’t put racial descriptors in the crime alerts, she got as many community complaints as when she did, and if anyone had a better public policy, she was “all ears.” She added, “I don’t think we are targeting African-American events, but I’ll go back and review that.”

The main complaint of the afternoon seemed to be from a few vocal parents who wanted staff sitting at desks in the entrances of all residence halls—and maybe every building on campus—checking IDs and preventing unauthorized access. The neatly groomed bald man in the corduroy jacket and Italian loafers who was sitting right in front of me asked the question the first time. He tried to ask it several more times but didn’t get called on again, and he muttered angrily about it and shouted Yes, yes! as others hinted at the same solution. While the university response does seem to lean toward technology, there are problems with staffing one desk that will cover all points of access to a building. The Director of Housing explained that many of the buildings were built in the 1950s and ‘60s, when security was not the issue it is now, and their very design makes human staffing as the sole solution difficult.

The angry man said aloud to no one that a single desk in front of the stairwell leading to all the living-quarters floors in a hall would do it, and for some reason he kept repeating that four such desks would cover everything on campus. But there are at least 100 floors of rooms in a couple-dozen residence halls, and the Director spoke at length about fire codes and worse dangers from sealing up access.

He explained he has 35 years of experience in five different college settings, from urban to rural, and said, “I’ll openly admit we’ve gotten a little behind the curve [in security issues]. I think I know what we need to do. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

The dad in the corduroy jacket got up and left, taking his family with him, but the meeting went on for another hour.


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