Sexual assaults, school shootings and other forms of on-campus violence are a major part of the national discussion of campus safety. The threat of a stolen laptop isn’t as frightening, but there are many types of crime that can affect college students.
As prospective college students and their families try to choose the right school, researching campus safety can seem daunting, uncomfortable or even impossible.
To thoroughly evaluate a school's safety, prospective students need to research crime statistics, ask current students and campus staff the right questions and explore the programs universities have to protect and assist students, experts say.
[Learn how to stay safe on a college campus.]
Under a federal law known as the Jeanne Clery Act, brick-and-mortar schools that receive federal student aid are required to share information about crime on and around their campuses.
Under the law, schools must submit an annual security report, maintain a crime log, share statistics for a variety of crimes that happen on campus and in some off-campus facilities, issue timely campus alerts, maintain a fire log and create policies to handle reports of missing students.
Families should first check the annual security report, which schools must submit by Oct. 1 each year, says Abigail Boyer, assistant executive director of programs at the Clery Center for Security On Campus.
The Department of Education has a site that allows users to research statistics by institution. Families should also be able to find the information through a university’s website.
The Clery Act provides basic rules, but colleges have flexibility in how they implement certain sections, including how they handle campus alerts about safety issues such as a shooter.
For example, the length of time it takes for a student to receive a notification from the campus in an emergency is important but varies by school, says Robert Lang, who heads up security efforts at Kennesaw State University. Lang says that families should also ask about the variety of alerts a school uses beyond text messages and emails. Kennesaw’s alert system includes computer pop-ups that can override classroom lectures, messages that display on digital signs around campus and a siren system.
Lang encourages families to ask schools who handles campus safety measures and how those measures are divided up. Some schools may have departments and programs dedicated to campus security and safety or have university police, while others may work with local police.
Families should also think about where students will spend time when they’re not on campus.
"You need to do some homework too, about not just the campus itself, but the city surrounding it," Lang says.
Families can look at the FBI Uniform Crime Report to see trends for crimes in areas surrounding a campus. Prospective students also should take time while visiting a school to explore these areas to make sure they feel comfortable.
The numbers are important, but prospective students shouldn't become consumed with them, experts say.
Campus culture can affect the number of crimes reported by students to universities. Students may be more likely to report crimes if they attend a school with a lot of resources and feel confident in the support they receive than students at less supportive institutions, say both Jill Greenbaum, founder of a consulting company, and the Clery Center’s Boyer.
With that in mind, experts say that a school with a higher number of incidents isn’t necessarily less safe than a school with fewer reported incidents.
Greenbaum, who was also the director of a rape crisis center in New Jersey and the first executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says it’s important to see if a school openly discusses campus safety and what types of programs they offer for students to both prevent crime and assist when an incident occurs.
Families can use their college tour to gauge a school’s openness regarding both campus safety as a whole and about sexual and dating violence. Greenbaum says that sexual assault isn't something that families want to think about, but the reality is that it happens and shouldn't be taboo for schools or families to discuss.