Improving Campus Security: From Sexual Assault to High-Tech Thievery

April 14, 2006
Many problems still fueled by alcohol, but identity theft becomes the new wave

Like any large forum, college campuses can be dangerous places. Small cities unto themselves, they see thousands come, go, eat, drink, work and play. Unlike small cities, however, they are populated with 18- to 25-year-olds likely away from home for the first time. Trusting, eager to fit in and with the decision-making region of their brains not quite yet mature, these undergraduates unfortunately fall prey to a variety of crimes.

The most common crime on campuses today is "theft" according to Daniel Carter, senior vice president, Security On Campus, Inc. "The incidents are so high that there are no national numbers" Carter reportsthat bicycles and laptops remain the most popular items stolen, as they are often left unattended. More often than not, students don't gopublic with the incidents. "Campuses have initiated programs to label valuable items so they can be returned if recovered," says Carter. "It's all pretty low-tech and old fashioned."

While it may not seem so to the cash-strapped student who just lost a valuable item, theft is not deemed serious enough to be a reportable crime under The Clery Act. The more personal robbery and intrusive burglary, however, must be reported. The U.S. Department of Education's latest numbers from 2003 show that on-campus burglary at public,four-year institutions stands at 12,211 events. Robbery, under the same criteria, is at 730 reported events.

Fueled by Alcohol

"These crimes are no where near as prevalent as sexual assault andalcohol abuse," says Kimberly Pfaff, director of the Behavior Sciences Department of Business Controls, Inc., a professional corporate investigation and consulting firm."Alcohol-related arrests have increased in the last 15 years." Pfaff credits this upswing to campus and local police departments taking alcohol abuse more seriously.

She also notes the rise in eating disorders in young woman as a factor in alcohol abuse. "Women see beer as fattening so they choose hard liquor," Pfaff explains. "As a result, they are drinking an exorbitant number of shots." Often with disastrous results, as seen in 2004when Colorado saw two back-to-back, on-campus, alcohol-related deaths. In answer, the state passed a law that grants immunity to any underage drinkers who call 911 to help a friend.

To get a handle on the problem before the party runs out of control, Pfaff and Megan Rowland Levi, a behavioral sciences specialist at Business Controls, Inc., strongly suggest peer counseling. "Student-to-student mentorship is more effective than adult lecturing in this area," says Rowland Levi. "It becomes less about 'don't drink because it's bad' to 'this is what happens when you have three beers, this iswhat happens when you have 10.'"

And what happens is serious stuff. Along with alcohol poisoning come increases in crime, from vandalism to sexual assault. Sexual assault, in fact, remains a huge--and hugely underreported--reality of thecollege experience. "The Department of Justice says that up to one in four students are victims of a completed sexual assault during their undergraduate career" says Carter. "The DOJ also speculates that fewer than five percent of these crimes ever get reported."

Susan Marine, director of Harvard's Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, agrees. "National studies suggest the disparity between experienced and reported events in the 90 percent range" she says. Reasons for not reporting include trauma, guilt, fear and an unwillingness to name names.

Schools, in Carter's opinion, can handle these assaults the right way. "A coordinated response like Harvard's office dedicated to help survivors through the trauma is appropriate and required by Title IX," be says. The wrong response not only further traumatizes students, it can land your school in PR hell, as is the case in Ohio State University's mishandling of a 2002 rape report. The school was sued underThe Cleary Act and profiled on a recent installment of Dateline NBC.

Yet even Marine admits that her program possesses neither the power to stop a rape from happening nor to hold rapists accountable. "We focus on being a safe place for students to report the incident and find out what she or he can do next," she says. "That doesn't translate to Greater safety" For that, she stresses common-sense safety precautions like well-lit buildings, trimmed bushes and vigilant access control. A more visible college police presence to keep outsiders off campus may also help, but as "80 percent of campus crime is student onstudent," according to Carter, it is not the only answer.

Identity Theft: The New Kid in Town

While theft, rape and assault have been problems for years, a new crime is grabbing headlines and making its way on campus. "We've received reports of identity theft from a few colleges," says Pfaff. It'sno wonder considering the numbers she offers: 49 percent of studentsget credit card applications weekly, 30 percent of students throw these out before destroying them and 30 percent never or rarely reconcile their credit card statements or checking accounts. Schools are no better, with 48 percent of them posting grades by social security number.

"Campuses need to conduct background checks on employees, have sufficient systems security features in place and educate students on how to protect themselves," says Pfaff.

All this safety data can and should be used by security offices tomake changes. "Schools can identify pockets of crime and address theissue" says David Bergeron director, Office of Postsecondary Education, Policy and Budget Development Staff. "Students should look at thedata and think about how they can avoid becoming a victim."

A Snapshot of Annual High-Risk college Drinking Consequences

Death: 1,400 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes.

Injury: 500,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are unintentionally injured under the influence of alcohol.

Assault: More than 600,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.

Sexual Abuse: More than 70,000 students between the ages of 18 and24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

Unsafe Sex: 400,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 have unprotected sex, and more than 100,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report having been too intoxicated to know if they consented to having sex.

Academic Problems: About 25 percent of college students report academic consequences of their drinking, including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers and receiving lower grades overall.

Health Problems/Suicide Attempts: More than 150,000 students develop an alcohol-related health problem, and between 1.2 and 1.5 percentof students indicate that they tried to commit suicide within the past year due to drinking or drug use.

Drunk Driving: 2.1 million students between 18 and 24 drove under the influence of alcohol.

Property Damage: More than 25 percent of administrators from schools with relatively low drinking levels and more than 50 percent from schools with high drinking levels say their campuses have a "moderate" or "major" problem with alcohol-related property damage.

Police Involvement: About five percent of four-year college students are involved with the police or campus security as a result of their drinking, and an estimated 110,000 students between 18 and 24 are arrested for an alcohol-related violation, such as public drunkennessor driving under the influence.

Alcohol Abuse and Dependence: 31 percent of college students met criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse and six percent for a diagnosis of alcohol dependence in the past 12 months, according to questionnaire-based self-reports about their drinking.

How Does This Affect Your Campus?

As the numbers show, the consequences of college drinking are moresignificant, more destructive and more costly than many people realize. In addition to the damage done to student lives, these consequences affect the reputation of the institution, the ability to attract and retain outstanding students, the college's academic ranking, the institution's operating costs, legal ramifications and the relationship of the campus with the community.