What Families Think: CAMPUS SAFETY AND VIOLENCE Take a more comprehensive perspective in informing families about your college's environment, programs, and policies.
Howard and Matthew Greene
THE PHONE RINGS. THERE ARE REPORTS OF GUN-SHOTS on campus. Apparently someone is holed up in a tall building in the middle of the university campus, firing shots from a rifle at random passersby, police, and campus security officers. Eventually he is subdued.
Afterward the investigation turns up these various facts: he was depressed and suicidal, and had visited with campus medical and health professionals well in advance of the shootings; he had served in the military but was discharged; he had begun acting erratically and was having marital difficulties; his parents had divorced; he purchased his weapons legally; he killed his wife and mother prior to the shootings; he left a detailed suicide note, making it clear that he didn't intend to survive his violent rampage. Illinois or Virginia in the 21st century? Could be, but this incident occurred over 40 years ago, in 1966 at The University of Texas-a defining moment for a college generation.
Since then, a number of more or less similarly horrific violent incidents have occurred not only on college but also on secondary and even elementary school campuses across the country. Their names are familiar: Jonesboro, Springfield, Columbine.
Unfortunately, major acts of violence, facilitated by access to firearms and to models of such behavior, are nothing new at educational institutions. Yet they are also exceedingly rare, and are actually anomalous forms of campus violence. Educational environments tend to be among the safest places for students during the day. Children, adolescents, and young adults face greater dangers from motor vehicles, recreational accidents, substance use, violence in their neighborhoods, and even from their own families and their own hands. Mental health counselors will often point to the greater prevalence of suicide among young people than homicide. Of course, much of the dramatic violence seen recently on college and school campuses is both suicidal and homicidal.
A great many studies of these and other recent and past school shootings have gone to great lengths to understand ways to prevent, react to, and recover from major acts of violence. Lessons have been adapted from approaches to handling natural disasters and terrorist threats. Technology has offered administrators new tools to communicate with staff, students, parents, police, and the press, as well as the means to keep our largely open college campuses more secure and better monitored. From door locks swiped with student IDs to hidden surveillance cameras to armed guards on campus, students today certainly face a different campus environment than those of a generation ago.
WEIGHING ON THEIR MINDS
Our own research and experience counseling students and parents over many years has shown significant concerns among students on college campuses about personal safety and the secondary effects of drug and alcohol usage. For example, student interviews at elite college campuses for our book Inside the Top Colleges (HarperCollins, 1999) revealed worries about date rape, physical abuse, theft, and general concerns over personal safety. These were reflected as well in a Harvard University School of Public Health study released in 1995.
The federal Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990 (now known as the Jeanne Clery Act, after the Lehigh University [Pa.] freshman murdered in her dorm room in 1986) required all higher ed institutions receiving federal funds to report annual crime statistics. The law has been amended several times to add provisions for victims, expand reporting requirements, and link reported data with Megan's Law sex offender information availability. Though campus crime and safety data are still difficult to gather, sometimes uneven, and sometimes not clearly delineated or accumulated between on-campus and off-campus crime and violence, the system has continued to improve and offer families more information about the campus environments of the colleges they are considering (see www.ope.ed.gov/security or www.securityoncampus.org).
We believe that concerns parents and students have about campus safety and security have increased in recent years, but-and this is an essential point for us to make-they are looking at violence and safety in a much more basic and fragmented manner.
This is true even as violent crimes decreased on campuses by 9 percent between 1994 and 2004. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ), the violent crime rate on campuses in 2004 was 62 per 100,000 students, as compared to the much greater national rate of 462 per 100,000 (USDOJ, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Campus Law Enforcement 2004-05").
Families are concerned about the risks of terrorism, and we have written previously for this magazine about the aftermath of 9/11 and its impact on the willingness of families to travel by air to reach their children in college, or their comfort level with sending children to study in New York City or Washington, D.C. They see the shocking events of mass shootings on TV and worry about campus crisis-response preparedness. Parents and students today want to be able to get in touch with each other-physically, telephonically, and electronically-quickly and safely. At the same time, when families visit colleges, they are most concerned about safety and security from a daily lifestyle perspective.
Problems such as campus violence are shaped by the definitions we give them. The current issue of campus violence is being framed as a crisis response to suicidal, homicidal, armed attackers. This is a very limited view of the issue and one that does not capture the realities of life on most campuses, nor the concerns of most administrators and families. In Learning about School Violence (Peter Lang Publishing, 2001), Matthew Greene made an extensive study of the school violence problem and put forth a strong recommendation for educational institutions to broaden the definition of the issue, to make it more comprehensive, accurate, and integrated. That is, stakeholders involved in violence on campus should be a broad group, including those focused on prevention, intervention, and treatment-from security personnel, to website administrators, to admissions officers, to faculty, to mental health professionals.
They should add to the widest definition of what constitutes violence (or security, safety, crime, discipline, and so on) on or around campus. The definition should be accurate, based as much as possible on good crime data, interviews and surveys with current and prospective students and parents, assessments of counseling office trends, and so forth. The various elements of the definition, or parts of the elephant, to borrow an old metaphor, should be integrated in an ongoing manner so that stakeholders work together to prevent violence before it occurs, respond to it when it is happening, and recover from it if it has occurred.
LONG-TERM SAFETY AND SECURITY PLANNING
We encourage colleges and universities to take this perspective in putting together a long-term campus safety and security plan. We also suggest the following steps in confronting these issues on campus and communicating with current and prospective families about them.
- Make data available. Report accurate data to the U.S. Department of Education and make it readily available to families and community members on the web and in your literature. Put the data into context, such as whether you are an urban university, a rural college, or a commuter school. How does your crime data compare to your peer institutions, surrounding communities, or your state as a whole?
- Share resources. Talk about your institution's policies, programs, and resources available to confront violence, treat students in need of counseling, make crisis information available to families, and enforce disciplinary actions against students or staff.
- 3. Be realistic. Make it clear to parents and students that yours is most likely not a closed campus, a citadel free from violence or outsiders. Many college-bound students today have grown up in secure, protected environments. Parents might be under the mistaken impression that by dropping off their children on your campus, they are leaving them in your personal care and that you will monitor and protect them as closely as they have. Colleges must communicate the real risks students face and be honest with parents about the limitations of what institutions can and cannot do to keep students safe. This is even true, and perhaps more important, for colleges located in small towns or rural areas.
- We encourage colleges to work with parents as partners and to spell out the responsibilities parents have to stay involved in the lives of their children. Yes, this is less relevant for the large number of nontraditional college students on campuses today, but in both cases, students themselves need education about their own rights, responsibilities, and risks. Since communication with the families of those who have reached maturity is legally limited, discuss with students and parents the signing of information-sharing waivers. Many parents we work with are astonished that colleges do not routinely send them transcripts or notices that their child is failing classes or going to see a counselor.
- Educate families. Teach them about the real risks students face on campus, including date or acquaintance rape; assaults by other students or local residents who might have bad relations with college students (the old town-gown conflict); drunk driving incidents, whether as a driver, a passenger, a pedestrian, or from a drunk driver in another vehicle; muggings while walking on or near campus; detrimental health effects associated with drug or alcohol use; mental health issues that might become acute under the academic stress and social anxieties associated with college life; self-inflicted harm and suicide; anorexia and bulimia, often associated with high achieving, perfectionist female and male students; theft of bicycles, computers, prescription drugs such as Ritalin, music players, and other high-value items today's students bring to their dormitories and off-campus apartments; and stalking, threats, bullying, unwelcome advances, and other issues associated with students' constant use of text messaging, cell phones, and online networking sites.
There is much good news about life on today's college campuses, as well as many challenges, old and new. Working with the admissions team, an integrated group of campus stakeholders can begin to confront those challenges, learn from what other IHEs have been doing successfully, and broaden both the definition of the problems and reactions to them.