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.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest criminal risk on campus results from abuse of alcohol. Alcohol-related injuries led to more than 1,700 deaths on campus in 2001. In the same year, 97,000 students were victims of alcohol-related rape or sexual assaults, and 696,000 were assaulted by a student who had been binge drinking, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
More than any other crime, sexual assault is the most troubling on campus. Reporting rates for these crimes are notoriously low, with some estimates suggesting that fewer than 5 percent of assaults are reported. Even so, federal statistics suggest students reported more than 2,600 forcible sexual offenses in 2004. A 2000 report based on survey data found a victimization rate of 27.7 rapes per 1,000 female students.
Taking up arms. The prevalence of such crimes, along with calls for better emergency management after 9/11, has prompted campuses to become even safer yet. Police forces have become far more professional than they once were, says Adam Garcia, chair of the University and College Section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "In the past 10 years, we've consciously moved away from the security guard mentality towards a law enforcement mentality," he says. In fact, many states-including Virginia-now require that campus officers receive the same training, and sometimes the same certifications, as rank-and-file police officers.
The worst emergencies that campus cops train for are "active shooter scenarios"-nightmares of the sort played out at Columbine and Virginia Tech. And the response to such incidents is changing. "Traditionally, the tactics in these situations involved containing the shooter and waiting for the SWAT team to show up," says Gene Burton, director of public safety at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "That's not the case anymore. Now, in many cases, the situation can become more dangerous if it's not resolved quickly."
Illustrating this shift are the tools that have now become standard issue for campus police: bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs, stun guns, bulletproof vests, and pepper spray. And at some schools, select officers receive advanced weapons training. That's quite a departure from years past. "Fifty years ago it was the campus cop patrolling the quadrangle at 2 a.m. and calling home a few drunken students," says Ann Franke, a college security consultant.
Other schools have taken a different approach. In 1991, Gang Lu, a disgruntled graduate student at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, went on a shooting spree that killed three professors, one administrator, and a fellow student. The school had to call in the local police because their officers carried no weapons.
The UI police now carry stun guns, but they don't carry firearms and must return to headquarters to arm themselves before responding to a potentially deadly incident. It's a policy the head of campus security wants changed. "You never want to get into a situation where you're sending your trained policemen into emergency situations unable to defend themselves," says Charles Green, head of public safety at UI.
Along with improving their police forces, schools have limited access to campus buildings, especially dorms. Most schools now require students to carry identity cards, many of which have magnetic strips that allow the IDs to double as key cards. Schools also have invested in illuminated call boxes, features that create an atmosphere of security and cut response time, security experts say.
Emergency E-mail. On the technology front, campuswide E-mail systems allow schools to notify the entire student body of an emergency-provided they are in front of their computers. Closed circuit television cameras are becoming more common, sometimes coupled with computers that can recognize suspicious behavior. The University of Iowa has even installed a siren warning system, though it's been used only to warn students about tornadoes.
Steven Healy, director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, says many colleges and universities may purchase mass-notification systems. "As students have moved away from land lines and are more dependent on cellphones and text messaging," he says, "we need to have a capability to reach out to them."
Schools are also taking steps to learn more about the students they admit. Last year, the Common Application, used by nearly 300 schools, added a question asking if the applicant had ever been the subject of disciplinary action in high school, been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony, or been suspended. After the shooting death of a basketball player four years ago, Baylor University began running background checks on some of its potential student athletes. After two students were killed by fellow students at the University of North Carolina's Wilmington campus in 2004, the school began running background checks on students with unexplained gaps in their transcripts. (The killers in both cases had not disclosed their criminal histories to the school.) Based on the new checks, 101 applicants were rejected for admission.
Reforms. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, reformers have called for timelier reporting of campus crimes, a greater police presence on campus, and even-arguing self-defense-a repeal of bans on carrying concealed weapons. Those and other measures will be debated in congressional hearings next week.
In the end, though, campus security must be balanced with a university culture that prizes individual freedom and tends to bridle at control. "There is always a tension between preserving student privacy and protecting safety," says Larry Faulkner, the former president of the University of Texas. "But the openness of a university campus has tremendous value."
Indeed, it was Faulkner who, in 1999, made the controversial decision to reopen the iconic tower that had served as a killing platform in 1966 and that had been closed since a spate of suicides in 1975. "There was a stigma for the school because the shootings were a unique event," he says. "And it was only with the passing of time that the campus began to heal itself."
With Silla Brush, Elizabeth Weiss Green and Bret Schulte
This story appears in the April 30, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.