'Safe Campus' Notions Gunned Down

May 18, 2006

“Get on the ground!”

Those four words echoed in the ears of students studying in a dormitory room at the State University of New York at Stony Brook last week when a group of bandana-clad men carrying knives and a handgun stormed their room. The men stole cell phones, cigarettes, a wallet and about $60 in cash. One of the alleged robbers was arrested this week.  

On Monday, at Stanford University, three men approached a male graduate student near a university building and asked him for directions. One of the men, armed with a handgun, told the student to hand over his money. On the same campus last week, a female undergraduate student was walking to her car when two men approached her. After briefly talking with the student, one of the men pointed a gun at her and asked her to get into her car, police say. After she complied, they asked her for all her money, which she gave them. They then fled. No arrests have resulted.

The most deadly of recent university armed robbery incidents occurred last week at the University of West Georgia, when one student ended up killing a male intruder who entered his apartment early one morning brandishing a pistol and demanding money. The city of Carrollton is not expected to charge the student, since police officials believe he acted in self defense.

While the most recent statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education indicate that on-campus robberies nationwide slightly decreased from 2001 through 2003, many campus safety officials and others have reason to believe that the numbers may currently be on the rise, especially those involving weapons.

For the past 29 years, Doug Little has served as a police officer at Stony Brook. “Robberies in general haven’t been all that prevalent,” says the assistant police chief. “In the past, we have said that these kinds of incidents were isolated.”

Last week’s robbery at Stony Brook was the first Little could remember that involved a gun. The campus, he says, had no robberies at all in 2004.

At Northwestern University, Alan Cubbage, a university spokesman, says that there has been an upsurge in robberies since 2003 in areas close to campus, especially in nearby apartment buildings. “We’ve had several off-campus incidents this year,” he notes, with two having occurred already this month. In both cases, more than one male threatened to beat individual students who were walking alone at night, if they did not give them money. 

The aftereffects of such crimes have reached the upper echelons of administrations on several campuses, and there is growing concern over how to handle such situations.

Stanford’s president, John L. Hennessy, recently sent an e-mail to students and faculty members indicating that that university has historically been a very safe community.

Ken Bates, a deputy police officer with the university’s Department of Public Safety, says that the last armed robbery at Stanford occurred in 1998.

"The safety and security of Stanford community members is of paramount importance to the university and its leaders," wrote Hennessy. "We are working with our chief of police, who has immediately increased the number of personnel on patrol, and with the Office of Student Affairs to ensure that students are both aware of the two robberies and taking precautions to ensure their own safety.

Stony Brook’s Little thinks that such incidents can serve as a wake-up call for students to be more aware about safety. “I think people get very shocked when they hear about these cases,” he says. “In some ways it’s a good thing because people then realize that campuses are not immune. Young people tend to think nothing bad is ever going to happen to them.”

On Little’s campus, campus police are part of student orientation presentations. The university also offers campus night ride programs and safe walk escorts.

Safety officials believe that being proactive can’t hurt, but many are asking why campuses are seeing armed crime in the first place.

“I think, in many cases, you’re talking about places where there are a lot of people,” reflects Little. “I always feel like colleges and universities are playing catch-up because we don’t know what sets these things off.”

Thomas Mackel, the chief of police at the University of West Georgia, says he’s not surprised that robberies are occurring, but the fact that weapons are being displayed is a relatively new phenomenon, he adds.

Mackel also indicates that he’s seen less aversion among students willing to bring firearms to campus in recent years. He noted that two students were arrested earlier this year for bringing guns to campus.

“A lot of students have more acceptance that crime is a part of life,” says Markel, who hasn’t noticed a marked increase in fear among students since the deadly shooting last week. “It’s very hard for a campus to change the eighteen years of life that a student has experienced before they got here.”

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