College campuses all around the country are places where people often question their safety and wellbeing from time to time. That’s not to say that colleges are downright dangerous places to be, no. But, it should be noted that the chances of crimes occurring in areas where college students live and frequently travel are greater than other areas. In fact, college campuses can be the epicenters for criminal activities in large cities (or even small ones) where schools are the focal points of trade and commerce in those respective areas. Albeit, there are many things to consider when investigating the occurrence of college campus crimes and stigmas that surround each school, which largely depends on each school’s student bodies. In this study, we will discover some of the factors that comprise college campus crimes and what can be done to combat them.
College is a time when teenagers make the transition from immature high school students to mature adults who learn more about themselves, others, and where they want to go in life. Because of the many opportunities for personal growth and development—which present themselves in both educational and conventional settings—college students find themselves in situations when choosing one path over the other usually proves to be life lessons. Whether or not students graduate from the colleges they first attend or they make the most out of their four years at a university and earn a degree (or many degrees), these life experiences can change very quickly from being harmless and optimistic to being dangerous and life threatening. Most students attend classes and go to all sorts of social functions and get-togethers during the course of their time in college, but for the unlucky percentages of people who become victimized while in college, crimes on college campuses become a harsh reality. Every student is unique in his or her own way, but criminals—or those who, otherwise, would be moral, law-abiding citizens—can target individuals based on any number of factors that are not always correlative to any apparent circumstances. In fact, while many factors contribute to growing crime rates on college campuses, as well as the chances of being victimized, and the fear of being victimized, campus crimes can be prevented. When considering all of the different strategies for prevention, the preliminary factors that must always be examined are the choices people make.
Choices and the Rational Perspective
Outsiders who are not part of college communities but who actively travel through areas in the direct vicinity around college campuses often look for opportunities to strike when others least expect. From a criminological standpoint, criminals usually choose to commit crimes when they feel they can get away with it. But, whatever motivation befits criminals to commit crimes, there is always a choice. One example is how people choose to speed when driving their car, even on college campuses when the walking to driving ratio leans more towards walking because of the accessibility of going to class and not worrying about parking one’s car. In their journal article, Decisions to Break or Adhere to the Rules of the Road, Viewed from the Rational Choice Perspective, Corbett and Simon (1992) claim that there are two major underlying perspectives that drive offenders to break the rules of the road. 1 Nevertheless, automobile offenses mainly occur on the outskirts of campuses, if not, in surrounding jurisdictions that are not considered to be a part of actual campuses. According to Corbett and Simon, the first of the two views is the dispositional view, which says, “Offenders are driven by internal forces over which they have little control.” In other words, people do not follow the rules of the road because they have little to no control over their free will. Contrarily, the second view—the rational choice perspective—says that “[Offenders choose] to commit crimes in order to satisfy certain needs,” and “[They] weigh up the opportunities, costs, and benefits of offending.” While traffic infractions (speeding tickets, texting while driving, running red lights, etc.) are not criminal offenses per se, the same principle can be applied to this situation because everyone has a choice of whether or not to obey traffic laws and common laws that have criminal repercussions alike. Although traffic violations and accidents encompass a small percentage of crimes on college campuses, this illustration is still useful in demonstrating the power of choice from the rational choice perspective. Thus, in keeping with this argument, most researchers claim that the rational choice perspective is the primary motivation when individuals commit crimes.
So, what can be done about this problem? Well, in the simplest of terms, it all comes down to free will. In their book, Rational Choice and Criminal Behavior, Piquero and Tibbetts (2002) claim, “Crime is a chosen activity because the anticipated benefit it brings to the offender outweighs the perceived cost associated with committing the crime.” 2 On the contrary, failing to complete a desired action will yield a greater punishment than any possible rewards. As simple as this is, lives become changed forever because people decide to victimize others out of selfish motives. Apart from individuals’ free will and their desire to commit crimes (which is an external, uncontrollable variable), colleges and universities are forced to adopt one of two methods for combating rising crime rates when dealing with their populations:
- Schools can either downsize their student bodies (less students = lower probability that crimes will occur; and less students = higher tuition);
- Increase law enforcement personnel on and around campuses, which may cause tuitions to rise (depending on whether or not schools’ law enforcement agencies are school funded or state grant funded)
While other options may exist to deal with increased crimes on college campuses, the two aforementioned methods are the most appropriate and the most feasible. Albeit, decreased student bodies/increased personnel (police presence) on college campuses alone are not enough to combat crimes. Subsequently, further monitoring of crime rates is needed in order to accurately assess the condition of crimes and with that said, mandated crime reporting and data archiving are two pivotal ways that law enforcement officials gauge campus crimes and inform the public.
Crime Reporting & the Extent of Campus Crimes
Today, college campuses are safer and more reliable places to learn and study, as opposed to years ago. However, crimes on college campuses were devastating institutions during the 1980s and 1990s because the lack of reliable statistical crime data hindered police departments from having accurate knowledge about the state of crimes that occurred. More so, the lack of safety and security on college/university campuses was a major issue for a woman named Jeanne Clery. After growing concerns and struggling with being uniformed about exact crime rates on college campuses, many students, parents, faculty, and administrators nationwide—led by Clery—strove to procure more information regarding the situation of college crimes. After all, this was for the sake of increasing safety and increasing attendance in colleges and universities all across the United States. In response, legislation was passed in 1988, called the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, which “requires all universities receiving federal funding to collect and publish current campus crime data for the preceding 3 years,” according to Nobles, Fox, Khey, and Lizotte (2013). 3
Incidentally, two years after the Clery Act passed, the Crime and Campus Security Act was written into law in 1990 to make campus crime data publicly accessible and to further compliment the Clery Act, making collegiate crime data a force for good to understand the wicked. Despite the good intentions of the two acts, though, Nobles et al clarify that the acts have faced much criticism because of “concerns about accuracy and reliability,” and because of the hierarchy rule, which means, “Only the most serious of a series of crimes by one offender is recorded.” One particular crime data source that uses similar methodology is the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), which is maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). 4 In the UCR, one will find that the FBI updates their crime statistics for many categories annually, but certain data categories are only recorded for jurisdictions within the United States that have populations of 100,000 people or more. With this methodology, crimes that are reported for all colleges in the U.S. do not appear in the FBI’s UCR data because there are no institutions of higher education (both public and private colleges and universities) that have 100,000 individuals who attend their campuses regularly at any given time. Additionally, Mancini (2014) asserts, “60% of crimes go unreported to the police for various reasons.” 5 Veritably, this criminological phenomenon is termed the “dark figure of crime,” as Mancini points out. This would also explain that although crime statistics for colleges are made available per the Clery act, many unreported incidents—if reported—would paint a different picture of crimes on college campuses.
Yet, the provisions of the Clery Act aim to correct this by mandating that 100% of college crimes that are reported to campus police departments be reported and made publicly available each year, as well as requiring that data for the past three years be saved. Despite the fact that over half of all true criminal offenses are not reported to law enforcement officials, as Mancini indicated, each and every incident that is reported helps college law enforcement agencies everywhere discover new ways to combat crimes in addition to traditional policing methods, such as (a.) Community policing, and (b.) Problem-oriented policing.
|a.) On a side note, community policing is defined as “The police actively seeking to maintain favorable relations with fellow citizens, and they prevent crimes/deter criminals just by having a strong, pleasant, and friendly presence in the community,” according to Mell (2014). 6 Additionally, Mell also points out that simply “being there” can help lower crime rates.|
|b.) Secondly, problem-oriented policing is “When police agencies directly address crimes after the fact. When certain crimes become more prevalent than others, problem-oriented policing strategies seek to stop current crimes.”|
Furthermore, it must be noted that colleges and universities in urban settings typically have larger student bodies and, therefore, yield higher crime rates. But, this does not mean that suburban or even rural schools cannot have large populations as well. As previously mentioned, it is important to understand that the populations of colleges and universities play a huge role in affecting crimes rates simply because increased people (and space) usually lead to more opportunities; hence, higher crime rates, for example.
Larger Populations = Higher Crimes Rates
It is not far fetched to suggest that more of anything (cars, businesses, buildings, etc.) will exist in areas where larger numbers of individuals live, as opposed to areas with smaller populations. The same is true with crimes on college campuses because more individuals who cause an influx of goods and personal items (cellphones, computers, tablets, potable music players, etc.) to appear in certain areas also attract people who wish to steal and victimize others. In the grand scheme of things, most people think of violent offenses (i.e. murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, etc.) when college campus crimes are mentioned. But, other offenses comprise college crimes rates as well, such as drug and alcohol offenses, automobile offenses, and property and white-collar offenses, among others. Specifically, drug offenses are on the rise on college campuses across the nation because of the wave of new students who have previous habits of drug use from high school and/or those who transfer from other schools with high drug use rates. In her lecture, Public Order Crimes, Mancini (2014) discusses how one study, called Monitoring the Future (MTF), surveys nearly 50,000 high school students every year. 7 What the researchers found initially was that in 1975, “55% of the high school seniors that were surveyed said they had used an illicit drug by the time they graduated.” Over the next three decades, however, usage rose to 66% in the ‘80s, fell to 55% in the 90s, and was reported to be 48% in 2010. Similarly, the study also indicated that, out of all students who drink or who have drank alcohol, 50% of respondents currently drink alcohol regularly (when the study was conducted), 25% were binge drinkers, and 7% were heavy drinkers. With the evidence strongly supporting the position that habitual behaviors—especially deviant and/or illegal ones—carry over to students’ college years, these findings warrant preventive measures and improved responses to drug and alcohol-related offenses to be taken. Such responses include mentoring programs, drug rehabilitation groups, and peer group therapy, as well as increased police targeting of drug offenders and/or “get tough” policies with campus police departments regarding drug use. Besides examining schools’ populations, managing them, understanding how the prevalence of different offenses lead to existing crime rates, and knowing what can be done to prevent different offenses, law enforcement and other school officials need to focus on other factors, in addition to population, that are conducive to rising crime rates.
In the video, the officers from the Middle Tennessee State University Police Department and students from around the campus give their testimonies as to how rising crime rates affect them and how drug use and sexual assaults (especially rapes) are the two statistical categories that are on the rise on college campuses today. 8
Patterns of Victimization
As evidence has suggested, student populations definitely affect crime rates on college campuses, as well as the fear that students have regarding the safety of their campuses, and the general overall aura that students feel exist. However, other elements heavily influence campus crimes and the effects that they have on student life. One example of this is how, in their article, Social Disorganization Theory and the College Campus, Barton, Jensen, and Kauffman (2010) assert, “Offenders encounter targets they perceive to be suitable for victimization that lack capable guardianship.” 9 Again, as this is a reference to the choices people make and the power of free will, people who choose to commit criminal offenses—that involve victimizing others (i.e. violent offenses)—almost always choose to victimize those whom they feel they can dominate. This is true anywhere you go, whether on college campuses or non-educational settings and unfortunately, the only way to prevent or greatly decrease the chances of victimization is to understand the patterns that exist in certain areas. Patterns of victimization can especially be seen—all thanks to mandated crime reporting via the Clery Act—in order to highlight problem areas or “hot spots,” which can actually help law enforcement officials identify, report, and emphasize the importance of avoiding such areas (and possible behaviors/signs of possible criminal activity).
Other Factors Affect Crime Rates
In addition to looking at patterns of victimization, Barton, Jenson, and Kauffman also suggest that other factors add to the propensity that crimes will occur, such as the proportion of students applying for financial aid, the proportion of students attending full-time, school size, and the proportion of male students. For instance, examining the proportion of students applying for financial aid is an interesting factor because, as theorists propose, individuals who receive financial aid come from low socio-economic backgrounds and, therefore, are more likely to have come from neighborhoods that are crime-laden. Furthermore, there are numerous instances where individuals who originate from these neighborhoods (who may have a prior history of criminal activity) often exhibit criminal behavior, which explains why monitoring the proportion of financial aid students is crucial. On the flipside, however, I would argue that certain parameters should be in place because too much oversight into individuals’ personal lives and information simply because they receive financial aid encroaches on their privacy and would discourage college attendance.
Secondly, the number of full-time students as well as schools’ student body sizes both fall under population, which has already been established as an important factor in understanding and preventing/lowering college crimes. The final element to consider is the proportion of male students simply because males are stereotypically aggressive, which means that they are automatically more prone to commit crimes, especially violent ones. In fact, Mancini (2014) also holds the position that “Males have evolved to be risk-taking and aggressive to attract mates and deter rivals,” which is the essence of the Evolutionary-Biosocial theory of criminology (The Trait Theory Perspective). 10 Given that this is not an all-encompassing list of factors to consider, brevity is appropriate because just these factors alone can greatly aid school and law enforcement officials in reporting, studying, and curtailing crime rates. Once more, all of these factors are very important but one final component of combating college campus crimes is having preventive measures in place to decrease the chances that crimes occur or to greatly minimize the effects that campus crimes have on members of colleges and universities.
Being Aware and Taking Precautions
Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” and I truly believe that this is the downfall for most colleges and universities, not to mention a plethora of public organizations and establishments, in regards to being prepared for crimes. This is because being proactive and having a plan is always better than having to react to situations with limited knowledge and soundness of mind during intense, possibly life-threatening, situations. To illustrate this concept, suppose that someone walked up to you demanding that you hand over your wallet, your iPhone, and any other valuables you had on your person. What would you do in that situation? Unfortunately, most college students (and even faculty and staff) are not educated on how they would react to such an incident. Therefore, there is a great need to train and educate everyone who interacts with colleges and universities about the chances that crimes will occur, how to deal with the fear of one’s campus (if any exists), and what to do in stressful encounters with would-be criminals.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s “VCU Alert” system, in which the Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department (VCU PD) contributes information, is an outstanding platform for informing faculty, staff, students, and parents of criminal activities that occur on and off of both the Monroe Park and MCV campuses. This is because the department sends comprehensive e-mails that inform all subscribers about a wide breadth of information regarding all criminal incidents. Moreover, such details include information about each incident that occurs, the status of each case (whether or not police are on the scene), precautionary actions that everyone should take when in similar situations, and other necessary info, as mandated by the Clery Act. For example, a VCU Crime Alert e-mail was sent on Saturday, July 19, 2014 that informed all subscribers that a crime had occurred off of the VCU main campus. Besides simply reporting what incident occurred, the e-mail also included suspect descriptions, a brief description of the occurrence, an advisory message to avoid the area, and precautionary behaviors that may help prevent future crimes from occurring. The e-mail contained the following:
- Do not resist, but cooperation is the best action when being threatened or confronted;
- Focus on suspects’ physical characteristics (i.e. clothing, height and weight, and last known direction of travel, etc.);
- Do not make any sudden/furtive movements;
- If the suspect claims to have a weapon, never try to force the bluff;
- Never try to apprehend the suspects yourself; call the police immediately;
- Do not let a cell phone conversation or listening to music distract you from crossing the street or other similar situations;
- Avoid isolated areas and walking alone at night;
- Be cautious if someone tries to stop or distract you (i.e. asking to use your cell phone or light a cigarette, etc.)
All of the precautions are appropriate measures and can be practiced anywhere, not just on college campuses, and they can potentially prevent incidents from escalating further or can even prevent crimes from occurring altogether. But, no matter the precautions one takes and no matter how informed one is about crimes because of the provisions of the Clery Act, there are still those who criticize the act’s effectiveness.
In this video, Elon University School of Law Professor Michael Rich, and the University of the District of Columbia Police Chief and Director of Public Safety Chief Larry Volz discuss college crime rates and other issues on college campuses, and steps that college officials everywhere can implement to lower crime rates. 11
Criticisms of the Clery Act and Conclusions
As aforementioned, the Clery Act was passed in order to comprehensively inform individuals who are actively connected to colleges and universities of criminal activities on their campuses. But, as with any piece of legislation, there are portions that do not adequately address certain needs or that lack appropriate applications. In their article, A Multidimensional Examination of Campus Safety, Wilcox, Jordan, and Pritchard (2007) explain the deficiencies of the Clery Act by pointing out that although the Clery Act exists to inform and help individuals on college campuses, it does not work effectively.12 Instead, they feel “The Clery Act’s effect would shift from a symbolic one to an substantive one if more colleges incorporated crime-related education about perpetrator-specific information, victimization risks, students’ fears in terms of perception danger, worry about crime, and precautionary avoidance behaviors.” Essentially, this is exactly what VCU is currently doing, and other colleges have followed suit as a result. Additionally, one intuitive ‘app’ for smartphones and computers that allows users to have access to a wide variety of tools for contacting the police when crimes occur and including social media into the overall effectiveness of its operations is the LiveSafe app. Approximately 120 colleges, including VCU, participate in the LiveSafe program, and this exemplifies all of the colleges’ and universities’ commitments and dedication to empowering their campuses, effectively making them safer and more educated about the risks of and how to report and prevent crimes.
Through much discussion and investigation, it is clear that rising crime rates on college campuses can be prevented by understanding the different factors that influence crime rates, by understanding how passing and implementing policies can reduce crimes, and by educating college/university populations on how to prepare for and react to crimes. In any particular set of demographics for college campuses, the dangers of crimes appear to be relatively consistent across the nation, but this is surprising given that violent crimes (for example) are more prevalent in the southern portion of the United States apart from college campuses (among regular, non-college populations). According to Pezza and Bellotti (1995), “The typical college campus community is potentially hazardous to the health and wellbeing of its members.” 13 However, they also state, “Being informed and training community members to be less likely to victimize others and to be less susceptible to being victimized” are risk-reducing measures. Subsequently, taking all of the factors of crime rates and victimization that were discussed into consideration does not eliminate the chances that crimes will happen, but merely allows all who learn and apply the information to make better choices and successfully respond to dangerous situations. As Mark Twain once said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.”
1. Corbett, C.; & Simon, F. (1992). Decisions to break or adhere to the rules of the road, viewed from the rational choice perspective. Brit. J. Criminology, 32, 537.
2. Piquero, A. R., & Tibbetts, S. G. (2002). Rational choice and criminal behavior: recent research and future challenges. New York: Routledge.
3. Nobles, M. R., Fox, K. A., Khey, D. N., & Lizotte, A. J. (2013). Community and Campus Crime: A Geospatial Examination of the Clery Act. Crime & Delinquency, 59(8), 1131-1156.
4. Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report, January – June 2013. (2014, January 7). FBI. Retrieved July 20, 2014, from http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/preliminary-semiannual-uniform-crime-report-january-june-2013
5. Mancini, C. (June 2014). The Nature and Extent of Crime. Lecture retrieved from Blackboard site for Professor Christina Mancini, Virginia Commonwealth University.
6. Mell, S. (June 2014). Manage Your Resources Effectively. Lecture retrieved from Blackboard site for Professor Shana Mell, Virginia Commonwealth University.
7. Mancini, C. (June 2014). Public Order Crimes. Lecture retrieved from Blackboard site for Professor Christina Mancini, Virginia Commonwealth University.
8. College Campus Crime Rate Increases. (2012). YouTube. Retrieved July 23, 2014, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taw7uiELBok
9. Barton, M. S., Jensen, B. L., & Kaufman, J. M. (2010). Social disorganization theory and the college campus. Journal of Criminal Justice, 38(3), 245-254.
10. Mancini, C. (June 2014). The Trait Theory Perspective. Lecture retrieved from Blackboard site for Professor Christina Mancini, Virginia Commonwealth University.
11. Higher Education Today – Campus Crime and Policing. (2012). YouTube. Retrieved July 24, 2014, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U56ynkp6xnI
12. Wilcox, P.; Jordan, C. E.; & Pritchard, A. J. A Multidimensional Examination of Campus Safety: Victimization, Perceptions of Danger, Worry About Crime, and Precautionary Behavior Among College Women in the Post-Clery Era. Crime & Delinquency, 219-254.
13. Pezza, P. E., & Bellotti, A. (1995). College campus violence: Origins, impacts, and responses. Educational Psychology Review, 7(1), 105-123.