Imagine these scenes: A drunk student stumbles past the darkened Chem Building with her purse swinging loose on her arm. A resident entering South Quadrangle lets a stranger trail in through the dormitory’s door behind him. A student walks home from the library with his new Macbook Pro, Blackberry phone and iPod after a late study night.

Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere

It seems that given the regularity of these situations ne’er-do-wells must be licking their chops, eyeing the University’s campus like an all-you-can-steal buffet. So, with such ripe conditions, are college campuses festering with criminal activity?

Everyone knows about Seung-Hui Cho, the senior at Virginia Tech University who killed 32 people one Monday morning in April, most of them sitting in class in unsecured buildings. And most of us have heard about the rape and murder of Eastern Michigan University freshman Laura Dickinson in an EMU residence hall last December. Resulting evaluations of campus safety found universities around the country lacking in advanced security measures that might have prevented the violence.

What everyone might not know is that despite not being at the cutting edge of security, crime at universities and colleges is relatively rare, at least according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education. A few years ago, it reported that crime rates are consistently lower on campuses than public areas. Its report was compiled based on a decade’s worth of crime statistics gathered through the Clery Act of 1990. The legislation, prompted by the murder of Jeanne Clery at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, P, requires all post-secondary schools to release data on crime on campus and adjoining public property.

Statistics from the Clery Act are the public’s main resource to gauge the safeness of individual campuses. The Department of Education’s website contains search tools where those concerned can compare three years of crime numbers from one campus or set of campuses to the average numbers of another grouping, defined by population-size, region or type of program.

How does the University of Michigan measure up?

Between 2003 and 2005, the University had an average of 23.6 reports of forced sexual assaults per year, while the national average for universities like it, four – year institutions with residence halls and more than 20,000 students – was just seven reports. The University of Michigan also reported higher than average incidence rates for arson, aggravated assault and robbery.

Judging from the numbers, the University deserves a Gotham-campus reputation – as out of place as Detroit would be if it was located in Canada. But statistics alone can’t provide an accurate or complete picture.

Measuring campus safety is more complex. Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Diane Brown said there are several factors that play into why the University has a higher incidence of reports. Aside from having a large on-campus housing capacity and hosting events like football games that draw thousands of people from outside the University, differences in reporting crimes by victims and universities could skew relative statistics. It could be that other university administrations interpret the requirements of the Clery Act less stringently when they submit their statistics or that students here are more likely to report offenses, Brown said.

Discrepancies in how universities report crime make it difficult to compare safety on two campuses or to even have an accurate idea of the crime rate of one school. Above the results for a crime statistics search, the Department of Educations posts a disclaimer warning that it “cannot vouch for the accuracy of the data reported here,” because it doesn’t independently verify the information.

There were nine sexual offenses reported at Ohio State University in 2003 according to numbers reported by the school under the Cleary Act, but that number doubled in 2004 and tripled 2005. But OSU spokesman Rick Amwes said the higher amounts weren’t due to a boost in crime but rather changes to the school’s crime reporting procedures after a Department of Education workshop instructed OSU security officials to redefine the geographical areas included in the report.

Brown said the University also recently revisited its reporting procedure and determined that it does not need to include accounts of crime reported to employees of Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness and not to police. The policy change should lower the incidence of certain crimes in the University’s following reports.

So what does all this statistical parrying really mean about how safe we should feel walking home at night in the Diag or walking through the campuses of OSU or even Virginia Tech? Probably very little. The Clery Act data may ease or agitate the fears of many parents, but online statistical comparisons don’t provide much meaningful context.

“It’s unfair to conclude that statistics infer that the campus is more dangerous than other campuses,” said Jim Finckenauer, a professor of criminology at Rutgers University. “There could be a lot of reasons why those numbers are different. It’s the same problem people run into when comparing cities.”

Taking a reasoned, educated approach to the question of whether it’s safe to come to the University is more complicated than it would seem if you glace at crime statistics. If you looked at crime rates at Virginia Tech before the attacks, you would have no idea it would become the site of mass murder.

There are other ways to find out how secure campus really is. DPS has a veritable arsenal of security measures meant to ensure that young scholars can study soundly, even at night. However, so did Virginia Tech. The question is, are they really effective?

One cold and windy night of 2006, many members of the Michigan Student Assembly set out to walk through all of campus to locate the dark parts in an effort to increase the number of street lights and thereby make campus safer. The quest for better lighting became an important point in many MSA candidate’s campaigns after that, though campus hasn’t gotten noticeably lighter. Luckily, the University has more substantial safety measures, although they are not as well publicized.

To eliminate the need for students to walk home alone in the dark, DPS offers S.A.F.E. Walk, a service that escorts students from a campus location to their homes for free between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Once run by SAPAC volunteers who literally walked callers home, calling S.A.F.E. Walk now means being picked up by a Department of Parking and Transportation minivan and conveniently delivered to your residence hall or off-campus housing site.

Sitting behind the wheel of a University van, LSA senior Mattison Brady, a University bus driver who sometimes drives for S.A.F.E. Walk, said a busy night might consist of 20 pick-ups. That doesn’t mean that S.A.F.E. Walk transports 140 different students over the course of a week though. According to Brady, a lot of the students who use S.A.F.E. Walk are repeat patrons, meaning the number of students using the service each week is probably very small.

For the hundreds of students who do walk home alone at night, there are the blue-light emergency phones that line campus sidewalks. But while they make for decorative lighting, they probably offer little else.

When a blue-light phone receiver is dislodged, a signal is sent into the DPS calling center. The usage of the phones is impossible to track. The calls aren’t given any special distinction from the other calls made to DPS each day and chances are they’re rarely used.

Despite the blue-light phones, S.A.F.E. Walk, and other security precautions, the University isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of safety technology. At Michigan State University, students hoping to enter the dorms have to sign in with a guard at a front desk instead of trailing in after someone with a key, and though the University has cameras in residence halls, there could always be more. It’s times like these when perceived deficiencies are highlighted.

After a national tragedy, Brown said questions become focused on University emergency plans. After the Virginia Tech massacre, a segment concerning mass violence was added to the standard speeches on safety that are given to parents and students at orientation.

Brown said parents have increasingly asked whether the University is going to adopt a text message emergency alert system, though there are no immediate plans to implement one.

“Parents believe that’s the end-all because they’ve seen their kids texting so much and they think that’s the best way of reaching them,” she said.

While parents are having their fears assuaged during a campus safety presentation, no one can say how many new students are engulfed in daydreams about what their roommate will look like and ignoring the lessons that are meant to protect them. And that could be a problem. If people on campus don’t know about University security procedures, Brown said, all services and emergency plans, even texting, are ineffective.

Finckenauer said people in their early 20s are psychologically more prone to disregard safety procedures and put themselves in dangerous situations.

“It’s young people who make up both the offender population and victim population,” Finckenauer said. “I don’t know how you get students to listen.”

Business senior Riaz Tootla said he knows something about an emergency transportation service and how blue-light phones work, but he wasn’t aware the Campus Safety Handbook exists or that he likely sat through a DPS presentation and received a copy of the handbook at freshman orientation.

“I can’t remember anything about a security presentation. Not at all,” Tootla said.

LSA sophomore Mike Enochs told The Michigan Daily recently that he doesn’t usually open e-mails from the University administration, and so was oblivious the sirens that blared on Sept. 11 were only a test.

“I don’t really look at stuff that isn’t important, that’s not related to my classes or department,” Enoch said.

Brown said comments like that have her concerned about how the student population would react in a crisis.

“I don’t know if he’s one voice of a minority or one voice of an awful lot of people,” Brown said.

E-mails from DPS that would warn the University community in the case of a campus emergency are futile if students don’t read them. And a text messaging alert program, Brown said, would face many of the same obstacles of the University’s e-mail system. As with emergency e-mails, it could take hours for the program to send text messages out to thousands of people. Also, the message might be interpreted as a joke or restrained from clearly explaining the situation by a character limit. In any case, it would only reach the people who bothered to get their cell phone numbers into the system.

Finkenauer recommends that university security departments try to engage students about security issues throughout their college careers. He said reiterating information about precautions individuals can take to protect themselves is more effective than any particular security measure, because things like blue-light phones and card-swipe doors are generally designed just as much to make people feel safe as they are to actually make them safe.

For example, in a society where the cell phone is ubiquitous, Finckenauer said, measures like blue-light phones are redundant. But Brown said the phones likely work in another way that can’t be measured quantitatively. With the illuminated blue columns offering extra light and an emergency escape plan every 20 steps, the lone student may feel more comfortable and the creep lurking behind him might not feel comfortable attacking.

That comfort, Finkenauer said, is a huge part of public security.

“Probably the feeling of safety is a more important issue than the facts of crime,” Finckenauer said.

Brown said staying visible in all kinds of situations is a goal of DPS.

“There are times that officers are there to keep something from happening,” she said. “There are other times that they’re there because it’s a nice thing.”

Could an incident the magnitude of the Virginia Tech massacre happen here? Sure. There’s not much that campus lighting, escort services or even a text message alert system could do to prevent it. Is it going to happen here? Probably not.

Without implementing invasive security measures, the University will probably remain fairly easy picking for criminals, especially if students don’t take advantage of precautions already in place. That doesn’t mean we should necessarily get aggressive about stepping up security; we do, after all, have our own police force. No one wants metal detectors inside University buildings, even though they might have prevented Seung-Hui Cho from injuring dozens of people. There’s a balance universities have to strike when they weigh campus security procedures.

Maybe DPS has it right by generally ignoring the report recently issued by a panel in Virginia recommended campus security measures. The University and most campuses like it are very safe or at least as safe as unobtrusive measures are going to make it. And for nervous parents, there’s always the blue-light phones to make them a little more comfortable.

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