Parents and their college students wanting to avoid dangers they may find on campus should look at the school's safety reports online, pay attention to the security briefing at student orientation and ask lots of questions. But even with lots of precautions, staying safe is an ongoing process, say campus safety experts.
A spate of high-profile sexual assaults and violent incidents in the past several years have captured the national spotlight, putting campus safety on parents' and students' minds and how to improve it on institutional agendas.
Congress first declared September as National Campus Safety Awareness Month in 2008. It makes sense, as America's 4,000-plus colleges and universities fill up with students and a new school year begins. Students who arrive on campus to further their education may find that college can be a surprisingly risky place.
But colleges and students do a lot to limit risk. Students who pay attention will find strategies and partners in the push to make higher education safe.
Senior Cassi Mecham didn't pick the University of Utah with safety in mind, but she does think about it when she gets a campus alert or when she has a night class that gets out late and she has to walk to her car or to the commuter train. Mecham, 22, a graphic design major, counts on the university to keep her safe, but she also takes precautions, from walking across darker parts of the campus with friends she makes in those late classes to being especially aware of her surroundings and who else is there.
"If something seems wrong, I try to take care of it upfront," she said. "If I start feeling uncomfortable, I get away from there as fast as possible." She said she avoids parties and the risks associated with them, too.
Campus safety requires a student/university partnership, said Barbara Snyder, vice president for student affairs at the University of Utah. "I think it's a delicate balance between an individual being responsible for personal safety and the (university) doing everything possible to improve safety."
Snyder co-chairs the U.'s safety assessment task force. "No campus can guarantee that its students will be safe all the time. Colleges and universities are not immune from the crimes that exist in the general public. We encourage free speech and we encourage people to be here. Sometimes, there are people who arrive that we can't plan for. But to the extent we can, we do."
Some safety challenges, including theft and sexual assault, have been around as long as campuses have existed. Others arrived with innovation, including online vulnerability, said Todd Hollingshead, a spokesman for Brigham Young University. "Our students use technology more than any generation before them, and with that comes new and serious safety challenges." He said students may place their trust in someone they've never met based on virtual interactions. That can set them up for predatory relationships.
A student's trusting nature can pose other risks, too. Hollingshead's list includes theft — the most common crime on campuses — such as not locking up a bike or leaving a laptop in an open area while going to the restroom. It can also lead to personal danger, including leaving doors unlocked and not being aware of surroundings.
Safety experts say sexual assault and suicide are the most common forms of physical harm at college, and knowing where to get help or how to prevent them is important.
Robin Hattersley-Gray, executive editor of Campus Safety Magazine and author of "Parent's Guide to Keeping Your Child Safe at College." She has a list of questions to ask schools and to review with campus-bound kids.
To her, the biggest campus safety issues are sexual assault, at-risk drinking and mental health issues. Some colleges don't do a good job of addressing suicide risk or encouraging students to report when they've been sexually assaulted, she said.
In fact, nationally there are more than 300 Title IX open investigations into how sexual assault allegations have been handled by colleges.
Hattersley-Gray sees other needs, too, from effective training so students can intervene appropriately when a friend is in peril to recognizing the dangers of at-risk drinking and drug use. Many serious incidents involve alcohol and/or drug use, by victims or by the perpetrator. And a victim may knowingly or unknowingly consume something in a drink, she warned.
Identity theft is also common as students begin to get credit cards, said Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. Students find themselves surrounded by people they have not known for long. "Just because they seem nice and friendly doesn't necessarily mean they're your friends," she said. "I tell students to be careful how they trust or get to know different people."
It's not hard to determine if a college takes safety seriously, said Hattersley-Gray. Asking whom the top public safety person on campus reports to answers the question. If it's to a facility manager or low-level administrator, that's a sign safety is not a high priority. When the safety czar reports to the president or vice president, the issue is being taken seriously.
She warned that a school may be good at some aspects of student safety and not others. "It is the nature of humans; we can only absorb so many things. You can't protect against every risk and vulnerability," she said.
The Rape Abuse Incest National Network says as many as 23 percent of female undergraduate students and more than 5 percent of males experience rape or sexual assault. Ages 18-24 are very vulnerable, whether the young people are on campuses or not.
David Nance cites the network's statistics that show the number of college-age females who are sexually assaulted is about four times higher than other age groups. He is CEO of SABRE, a family business that makes pepper spray and other safety items. SABRE also teaches safety, including proper use of products.
He said 65 percent of sexual assaults occur in dorms, apartments, sorority or fraternity houses or at a friend's place — and students are particularly at risk in their first months at school. Their guard is down, they may be on their own for the first time and they may not fully understand potential dangers. Besides learning what help and protection is available, they need to know how to help themselves.
Under a law called the Clery Act, every U.S. college and university publishes its security report, which is posted on the school's website. The act has been around since the early 1990s and was named for Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student murdered in her dorm in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1986.
Under the act, colleges provide hard numbers on campus-related crimes, as well as an overview of campus security policy. The law includes a daily crime log, emergency notifications and more. It has been tweaked to reflect new events: For instance, after 32 students were killed at Virginia Tech in 2007, Congress changed the law to require colleges to immediately tell students and families of imminent threats on campus, sparking notification by text, email, phone and web messages. Mecham is among the thousands of students who get alerts when danger is nearby, and she pays close attention to them, she said.
Sexual violence reporting is mandated, the colleges required to treat those reporting sexual violence with respect and schools to investigate and deal with the issue.
"For 25 years, the Jeanne Clery Act has been at the forefront of a national dialogue on campus and a driver of improvements made across the board," wrote S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, in an article for Campus Safety Magazine. "Because of this law, campus public safety is better resourced and safety communications are significantly faster and more transparent."
Earlier this month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said changes are coming to what she calls a flawed system. She expressed concern that the rights of those accused of sexual assault might not be as well protected as they should be since the Obama administration in 2011 issued what's been called the "Dear Colleague Letter" spelling out guidance on handling reports of sexual violence.
"Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined. These are nonnegotiable principles," DeVos said during her speech at George Mason University on Sept. 7.
Critics have said steps DeVos takes — none of which have been announced — could have a chilling effect on reporting of sexual assault and could wind back progress in making campuses safer. Proponents say changes would go a long way toward preventing unjust action against people who might be wrongly accused of sexual violence.
Riseling noted that campuses that report higher numbers of sexual assaults may not have more than other universities. "It usually means people there feel comfortable coming forward and talking about being a victim," she said. Some universities run awareness campaigns to encourage reporting, like the "Tell Us" campaign University of Wisconsin, Madison ran a couple of years ago.
No matter what the number is, it's probably low compared with reality, said Riseling. "One is too many. The numbers are not as relevant as the problem that needs to resolve. But everybody wants to chase the numbers all over the place."
Mike Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a school safety nonprofit, said perception of safety is not always reliable. For instance, homicide is way down, but perception is that it has gone up.
He warns that groups use "highly questionable data" to sell products or safety training, including "fear-based programs" that claim to address gun safety or active shooter situations, which is a situation colleges increasingly tackle. Experts say while preparedness is good, active shooters are much less common than suicides or sexual assaults, which may not get the same attention.
Dorn says gun issues have become polarized and people on both sides are willing to use bad data to fit political agendas. They create a "disturbing picture that causes a great deal of fear" without increasing safety.
Teaching what to do in the face of terrorism or an active shooter matters, he said, but efforts should also address common problems. "We have X amount to make a school safer. Let's take a portion and work on evidence-based approaches to suicide prevention." Having medical devices like AEDs and pens that inject Naloxone to prevent heroin overdoses make schools safer, too. Dorn believes the Stop the Bleed campaign teaching how to control severe bleeding is more likely to be needed on the average campus than terrorist training.
While safety briefings have gotten very good at most schools, Dorn said, if you don't go or don't pay attention, they can't save you.