Is Violence on the Rise at College Campuses?
Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on October 29, 2015 at 10:14 am
School shootings, like the recent one at Umpqua Community College, are raising awareness about college campus safety. But it’s not only the lone gunman parents have to worry about. Sexual assault on college campuses is also on the rise, leaving many parents wondering how they can keep their children safe when they send them off to school.
College campuses are supposed to be a safe environment where students can come together to share ideas and learn. Unfortunately, institutions of higher education aren’t exempt from the violence that makes the evening news in cities across the country.
While horrific acts like school shootings bring the subject of campus violence to the forefront, it’s not only guns that students and parents have to worry about. Consider this: according to a recent Association of American Universities survey of 150,000 students from 27 colleges and universities, 27.2% of female college seniors reported they had experienced unwanted sexual contact while they were incapacitated. Even more alarming, more than 50 percent of the victims said they didn’t report it because they didn’t consider it “serious enough.”
“We know that the vast majority of sexual assaults on campuses are not perpetrated by strangers,” says Casey Corcoran, program director at Futures Without Violence. “It speaks to the campus culture where violence against women in particular is the accepted norm. We need to change that.”
In response to this problem, in January of 2014 the Obama administration launched the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The task force was established to explore the scope of campus sexual assault, develop best practices to deal with it and improve the federal government’s efforts to prevent and respond to sexual assault on the nation’s campuses. The administration’s efforts are bringing attention to the problem and making schools more accountable. But for parents, a Task Force doesn’t provide peace of mind that their children are safe from sexual assault or other forms of violence while getting their degree. While there is no one silver bullet that will fix the problem, there are things parents and students can do to make sure they their children are safe. And that can start before they send their children off to college. “The parents are the consumers, and as the consumers they need to hold schools accountable,” says Corcoran.
Monitor college security reports
According to Anne Hedgepeth, government relations manager at the Association of American Universities, parents and students should examine a school’s efforts to curb assaults and protect their students and faculty from gun violence. One way to do this, says Hedgepeth, is to examine the school’s security report, which every higher education institution that receives federal financial aid is required to release on October 1st of each year under the Jeanne Clery Act. The report should be posted on the school’s website and should be easy to find. If it takes a lot of clicking around to find the report, it can be an indication of the importance the school places on security. Hedgepeth says the report should include the school’s security polices as well as the statistics on reported incidents.
“Parents should look at the school data very carefully,” adds Corcoran. “[Reporting] a low number of sexual assaults does not mean that school is safer than a school that reports a higher number.” In fact, the school that reports the higher number of incidents may actually have a better pulse on the campus climate, he says.
Ask the right questions
In addition to combing the annual security report, experts say parents and students touring college campuses should ask questions about security polices, what plans are in place if something happens and how the school handles reported cases of sexual assault. Robin Hattersley Gray, executive editor of Campus Safety magazine, says that while it’s nearly impossible to lock down a college campus, schools could install locks on classroom doors to keep people out and have training for faulty, students and campus security guards on what to do in a shooting situation. Schools should also have strong relationships with the local police and run drills so they know the lay of the land on the campus and thus are able to respond quicker. “At Umpqua, they responded really quickly. We are finding a lot of SWAT teams are responding [at] lightning speed,” says Hattersley. “That is a testament that they had a couple of active shooter drills.” If the college or university doesn’t work in conjunction with the local police, the response time can be much slower as law enforcement tries to identify a location on campus.
At the end of the day, parents and students need to ask those tough security questions – and if they don’t like what they hear, they need to seek further explanation or consider attending a different school. After all, if a university is cagey or uninformed about security, chances are it’s not going to know the level of violence and assaults happening on their campus. “It makes sense to ask about the emergencies plans, their threat assessment and how the school responds,” says Hedgepeth. “The school should be able to provide timely warnings and alerts to all students and have evacuation and lockdown plans. If you can’t find answers to those questions, it should give you pause.”