Toward a Safer Campus
The ivory tower is more secure than ever, but more safeguards may still be needed
On the afternoon of Aug. 1, 1966, a 25-year-old engineering student named Charles Whitman ran a few errands: He cashed a check, left some film to be developed, and wrote a suicide note. He had just murdered his wife and mother. A few hours later, the former marine climbed the 307-foot tower at the University of Texas-Austin with a small arsenal of rifles and began pulling the trigger. For 80 minutes, bullets rained down on armed police officers and bystanders alike. Before police fatally shot him in a barrage of their own, Whitman had killed 15 people and wounded 31 more.
The first widely publicized mass killing in the United States and the inspiration for movies, books, and copycat crimes, the University of Texas shootings forever shattered the myth of the ivory tower as a place immune to the violence of the outside world. It helped give rise to police SWAT teams, and it led to the replacement of Mayberry-style campus cops with armed police often as well trained as their outside counterparts.
Since Texas there have been scores of such horrifying incidents at colleges and other schools. And while murder on campus is exceedingly rare, its continued occurrence, along with the far more frequent incidence of sexual assault, has only increased calls for heightened security, improved alert systems, and more thorough crime reporting.
The killer within. A pivotal case in the evolution of campus security came in 1986 when Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., was raped, tortured, and murdered in her dorm room. It was later revealed that the school had no security patrols, that the perpetrator was a fellow student with a history of violence, and that there had been 38 violent incidents on campus in the previous three years-more than half committed by Lehigh students.
Out of the Lehigh tragedy came the federal law known as the Clery Act, a measure that compels all colleges to report violent crimes, murders, and burglaries to the Department of Education and to make yearly annual reports available to the public.
But the law, widely opposed by colleges and universities when it was passed and watered down in the process, is by many accounts weak, confusing, and lacking aggressive enforcement. Numerous studies have shown that colleges, protective of their reputations, habitually underreport crime. In 2006, a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation of West Chester University uncovered multiple sexual assaults and burglaries at the nearby campus that had not been reported to the government. And the federal government is now investigating the death of a student at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti last year. Activists complained that the university officials failed to warn students about "an ongoing threat to their safety." Despite such stories, the Education Department has reportedly levied only three fines since the reporting law was passed in 1990.
What crime statistics are reported, however, show that colleges are relatively safe places to be. In 2004, the most recent year for which data are available, the murder rate on college campuses was 0.28 per 100,000 people, compared with 5.5 per 100,000 nationally. Since the early 1990s, there have been on average 20 murders on campuses each year, out of some 16 million students who attend annually, says S. Daniel Carter, vice president of Security On Campus Inc. After accidents, the leading cause of death among college students is suicide.