RECENTLY, DURING MY MORNING COMMUTE I had a conversation with a woman who was considering different college options for her daughter. The daughter, who hopes to study psychology, was eager to spread her wings and set out on a new life in another state. The woman and her husband, however, were more concerned with having her nearby "in case something happens."
I've heard that phrase repeated many times since the terrorist attacks of 2001. "Every time I turn on the news there's a story about somebody getting raped or shot on a college campus," the woman said. She wasn't about to let her daughter go to any campus where she could be easy prey for an attacker, or where a student could walk into a classroom with a gun and open fire on classmates.
I could understand her concern, especially as my own son approaches college age. If one were to judge solely from newspaper articles or sensationalized cable news reports, today's college campuses appear to bear more resemblance to the Wild West than to hallowed halls of learning.
But the evidence doesn't bear that out. I told her that, <b>Virginia Tech</b> and <b>Northern Illinois University</b> aside, campus crime rates have actually been on the decline for a number of years. Violent crimes at four-year colleges fell 9 percent between 1994 and 2004, according to a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study. Property crimes fell by 30 percent during the same period. (Get the full report here: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/cle0405.pdf).
The truth is that colleges and universities have gone to extraordinary measures to help ensure student safety. Again, according to the BJS study:
Three-quarters of campus law enforcement agencies used sworn officers with full arrest powers.
Nearly all campuses had 24-hour patrol, a 3-digit emergency number, and emergency blue-light phones.
Among schools with 5,000 or more students, private campuses had more law enforcement employees per capita than public campuses.
Still, throwing crime statistics at a worried mother won't win a debate, and they do nothing to ease the grief of families whose loved ones were injured or killed as a result of campus violence. Unfortunately, even with all the extra law enforcement and surveillance equipment, there's still no way to know whether someone may snap and attack fellow students.
Sure, there are often signs. There were signs in the Virginia Tech tragedy. The shooter exhibited behaviors that should have alerted people to his potential for danger, but somehow he slipped through the cracks.
In preparing this issue, we talked about the "culture of communication" that has arisen on college campuses as a result of recent events. That doesn't mean only the flood of instant alert systems that have come on the market that enable the campus community to respond after the fact, but the understanding that campus safety is a shared responsibility and communication is the key.
Workshops can be offered in personal safety for everyone on campus. Faculty, staff, and students need to be aware of and look for warning signs that may precede a violent act-and they need to tell others. Finally, as I've said on this page before, funding for mental health services needs to be at a level where intervention can occur when a student exhibits those signs.
There's a poster on the wall of my train stop that says, "If you see something, say something." Perhaps that simple advice could help prevent the next campus tragedy.
<em>Write to Tim Goral at email@example.com.</em>