Give a college this safety test No campus is completely free of crime. But you can make sure the schools that interest your child are doing everything they can to combat it.
By Teresa Tritch

(MONEY Magazine) – Colleges are beginning to come clean about campus crime. Thanks to the federal Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act -- passed in 1990 with the support of student crime victims and their families -- all colleges and universities whose students receive federal financial aid must now issue detailed annual statistics on reported campus crimes. The first reports, released in September 1992, covered 1989 through 1991. The 1991 record at the 2,400 U.S. campuses that responded to a survey by the trade journal the Chronicle of Higher Education: 30 murders, 993 rapes, 1,822 robberies, 4,669 aggravated assaults, 32,127 burglaries and 8,891 auto thefts. Such numbers understandably frighten many parents. But hold on: Overall, experts say, campuses remain far safer than major cities' downtown areas and even their suburbs, and campuses are almost always safer than their surrounding areas, as well. "I'd rather have my daughter walk across a typical campus than down a typical city street," says David Nichols, director of public safety at Alabama's Jacksonville State University. Moreover, while the data shed welcome light on serious crime, a problem many colleges have long sought to cover up, statistics alone can't tell you what you need to know about campus safety. For one thing, the schools are not required to keep track of petty thefts, such as stolen boom boxes, which safety experts say account for the great majority of all student crime. Nor are the data adjusted for such factors as campus size and location, making school-to-school comparisons virtually meaningless. And the fact that one school records far more crimes than a similar institution may simply mean that officials at the first school are doing a better job of encouraging students to report crimes. To get a more complete picture of the crime problem at the schools your child would like to attend, you have to perform your own safety review. This article will show you how. Based on interviews with more than two dozen campus safety officials, security experts, college deans, parents and students, we explain what crime-prevention features to look for on campus, whom to talk to about campus crime and what questions to ask. In addition, we provide tips on what your child can do to cut down on his or her chances of becoming a victim. And on page 37, you will find a fresh discussion of another campus worry, sexual harassment. Begin your investigation of a campus by asking the admissions office for the federal crime report; under the law, schools must give a copy to any prospective student who requests it. The report, which can be anything from a one-page letter to a glossy brochure, will include statistics on crimes for the past three years, as well as a description of the college's security policies. And despite the statistical shortcomings detailed above, the reports can be helpful. For example, their descriptions of campus security programs will give you a basis for questions to ask school officials later on. Moreover, the overall tone, detail and thoroughness of a report can suggest how willing a school is to deal with its crime problem. To perform a truly thorough safety check, you must visit each campus, preferably when classes are in session. Be sure to tour academic buildings, residence halls and other facilities after dark as well as during the day. That way you can see whether walkways, quadrangles, parking lots and other public areas are well lit and whether the campus is patrolled by uniformed guards or university police. At large campuses, make sure commuter buses and vans are readily available, especially after dark. Check for basic security features in residence halls, such as devices to keep ground-fioor windows from being opened more than a few inches and alarms that prevent students from propping open outside doors. To gauge the social scene, drive down fraternity row on a Saturday night and stroll through the student hangouts. Are the students merely partying, or have they gone over the edge? This is important, because alcohol abuse fuels crime. According to the Campus Violence Prevention Center, a research institute at Towson State University in Maryland, alcohol figures in as much as 90% of violent campus crimes. Usually, both victim and victimizer have been drinking. Also walk or drive through the areas surrounding the campus. Many schools are located near neighborhoods where you wouldn't feel safe walking alone at night. That's not necessarily a problem if the streets closest to the campus are well lit and busy. But if the college is surrounded by a neighborhood that is plagued by gangs, drugs and violence, you may want to scratch the school off your list. Here, as in other aspects of your safety review, there are no hard and fast standards; your own comfort level must be your guide. "Parents and students alike need to trust their sixth sense," says D. Joseph Griffin, director of public safety at Northeastern University in Boston and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. Either in person or by phone, discuss your concerns about campus crime with the college's public safety director and the dean of students or whoever else is in charge of student discipline. "Don't be afraid or ashamed to ask any question you want," says Griffin. "You have a right to straight answers that put a school on record about the situation and the policies for dealing with it." You may also want to speak with the editor of the student newspaper, the staff and volunteers at the women's resource center, residence hall advisers and students. Here are key questions to ask: What are the most common crimes on and near the campus? Theft and vandalism top the list at virtually all schools, so probe for information about problems that may be of particular concern to you, such as hazing, acquaintance rape, sexual harassment or hate crimes against minorities or homosexuals. How does the school combat crime? In general, the college ought to have emergency telephones along walkways, at bus stops and at outlying areas such as athletic fields; uniformed security guards or police officers, either armed or unarmed; and nighttime transportation services. Ideally, a school should go beyond these basics. Recently, for example, campus police at the University of Massachussetts at Dartmouth, the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and several other schools have begun patrolling on mountain bikes, which enable them to cover their sprawling campuses more effectively than they could on foot or in cars. Another positive sign: student involvement in campus security. At UCLA, for example, 300 community service officers -- all students who have received special training from the university police department -- patrol the campus, escort other students around the campus and immediate environs on foot or in vans after dark and assist campus police with such routine work as taking minor crime reports. How does the school's judicial system work? Vandalism, alcohol violations, fistfights and many other minor incidents usually end up being handled by tribunals composed of administrators, faculty and students who hear testimony behind closed doors and hand down sentences. (Such panels may also deal with more serious crimes such as date rape when victims are reluctant to press charges against fellow students or when local prosecutors don't think there is enough evidence to take cases to court.) Ask the dean of student life how many and what type of cases the school's tribunals handled in recent years. Find out what it takes for a student to get reprimanded, fined, put on probation, suspended or expelled, and how often the college has meted out such punishment. Since very few schools have a written set of mandatory sanctions -- most prefer to judge each case individually -- look for evidence that the school's judicial system punishes offenders consistently and effectively. How are victims treated? Ask whether the college has procedures for providing medical, psychological and legal help to crime victims. For example, many schools have rape crisis centers, officers who are specially trained to handle rape and bias crimes, and emergency hotlines. What is the college doing to curb alcohol abuse? Does the school co-sponsor educational campaigns with local bars, as well as fraternities, sororities and other student organizations? Does it require students who violate the drinking laws to undergo counseling? Does it provide a safe means of transportation home for inebriated students? The University of Texas at Austin, for example, hires cabs every weekend to pick up drunken students anywhere in Austin and take them home, free of charge. The cabs are also available to students who were counting on rides from someone who ended up drinking too much. So that the students will always have the phone number handy, they're given stickers for their ID cards. UT officials do not think of the program as a perk for drinkers but rather as a way to make sure intoxicated drivers don't kill themselves or others. In the program's first 10 weekends last fall, university-dispatched cabs transported 1,281 students. Does the college disclose information about crimes? A school should quickly disseminate news about serious crimes via, say, the student newspaper, radio station or computer bulletin board. Spreading the word alerts other students to potential danger, may encourage witnesses to come forward and ensures that the administration will not try to cover up the incident, says Jacksonville State's Nichols. Does the school teach students about crime prevention? At the very least, officials should discuss campus crime extensively with freshmen during orientation. And the more the administration tries to raise students' awareness of safety issues, the better. Rutgers University in New Jersey, for example, conducts a Street Smart Survival program. Student participants act as targets for a mock crime -- a purse snatching, say, committed by a plainclothes police officer. Although students are in on the game, they don't know what the staged incident will be or where it will occur. After the crime has taken place, students discuss their reactions with the officers and learn how they could have handled the situation differently or avoided it. "The program teaches students how not to become victims in ways that a lecture never could," says Leslie Scoville, Rutgers' assistant vice president of public safety. All the security guards, alarm systems and shuttle buses in the world won't protect someone who has not learned to take care of himself. There are a number of ways in which you can encourage your children to be safer students. For starters, make sure they attend freshman orientation and pay special attention to safety information. You might also pass along the fact that students commit 80% of all campus crimes. "It's difficult to convince young people that not everyone is honest," says Susan Riseling, chief of police at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. And even honest classmates can behave in ways that put your child in jeopardy. For example, dormmates may prop open residence hall doors, disconnect alarms or let strangers into the building. Says Riseling: "Students can be victimized by their own false sense of camaraderie." For that reason, she adds, "just don't bring a shiny new bike or an irreplaceable heirloom to college." Collegians can avoid a lot of trouble merely by locking their doors whenever they leave their rooms or go to bed at night. "It takes about eight seconds for someone to enter an unlocked room and take something," says Griffin. And although murder and rape by a stranger are rare on campus, in several cases that have occurred the assailant simply walked into the victim's room through an unlocked door. Finally, make sure your child understands that getting drunk can lead to more than a hangover. "You need to tell your children that the chances of becoming a victim or an assailant increase proportionally with the amount of alcohol consumed," says Scoville. Indeed, experts agree that by exercising common sense and drinking responsibly, your child can reduce his or her chances of becoming a victim and still have a good time at school.