III. The Social Context of Campus Crime
The social context of campus crime includes research efforts in such areas as developing better measures of its extent and nature, identifying its major correlates, and exploring its spatial distribution. Two key areas here have involved social science efforts to accurately estimate the extent and nature of the sexual victimization of college women and to identify and examine the role students’ lifestyles play in contributing to campus victimization.
During the past 15 years, four national-level surveys have gathered data on the victimization experiences of college students in general, and college women in particular (Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000; Fisher, Sloan, Cullen, & Liu, 1998; Fisher &Wilkes, 2003; Gross, Winslett, Roberts, & Gohm, 2006; Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987). These studies reported that students generally had lower overall rates of criminal victimization compared to nonstudents of similar ages, including overall levels of violence. Further, the surveys showed the most common form of on-campus victimization involves the theft of property. In addition, the surveys found that most students were victimized by other students who were known by (or at least familiar to) the victim, and that many victims had not taken any steps to prevent their victimization (e.g., asking someone to watch their property or not parking their vehicle in a dark lot). The surveys also reported that alcohol or drugs were involved in many instances of on-campus victimization. The surveys discovered that a large portion of all students who were victimized did not report the incident to any campus authority or law enforcement agency. Finally, the surveys almost universally found that a large minority of college women experienced a wide continuum of sexual victimization, ranging from harassment to rape, in a given year. In short, for the first time, surveys had accurately described who was being victimized; where victimizations were occurring (on- or off-campus); what had occurred; who was perpetrating the victimizations; what steps, if any, the victim had taken to try and reduce his or her chances of being victimized; once the victimization happened, what the victim had done about it; and what role, if any, alcohol or drug use had played in the victimization.
Studies of violence against college women, besides finding that a significant portion of women experienced some form of sexual victimization during their college years, also found that few female victims ever reported their experiences to the proper authorities and either blamed themselves for what had happened or did not even perceive themselves as victims and therefore sought no help (Koss & Oros, 1982). In addition, the studies reported strong links between alcohol or drug consumption and sexual victimization, including presenting evidence that college men often planned their assaults of women by trying to debilitate them with alcohol, drugs, or some combination of the two. Finally, the studies found that college women experiencing sexual victimization reported suffering higher levels of depression, anxiety, hostility, and other mental health problems than did nonvictims (Fisher et al., 2000).
Another key area of research has examined the role that students’ lifestyles play in explaining campus crime, particularly the use of alcohol and drugs (Tewksbury & Mustaine, 2003). Students’ lifestyles and their “routine activities” such as traveling to and from the campus, studying in the library, walking on the campus at night, parking in public lots, and socializing at both on- and off-campus locations where drugs or alcohol are available and consumed in large quantities, all create opportunities for criminal victimization (a) by exposing students to would-be offenders, (b) by making them desirable targets because of their possessions, or (c) because they failed to exert guardianship over their person or material possessions.
In general, victimization research shows that the people with whom one spends one’s time are important to understanding one’s exposure to potential offenders; this may be particularly relevant in the case of student victims, since many of them are victimized by other students. Campus victimization research shows that students attending a college or university with a greater proportion of minority students tend to experience higher rates of victimization than students enrolled at schools with small numbers of minority students. Students who spend a great deal of their time at home alone have a decreased risk of experiencing a violent victimization, as do students who spend more time with strangers in public places (in contrast to spending time with friends, family, or acquaintances).
Where students spend their time and at what time of day are also important in determining students’ proximity to potential offenders. Research shows, for example, that fraternity houses are an especially risky location for violent victimization, particularly for college women (Fisher et al., 2000). Students who spend their time away from home in the evenings are at generally higher risk for experiencing a violent victimization, while being away from home during the late afternoon seems to put students at the greatest risk for experiencing theft victimization at their homes.
Finally, students who spend time in activities that result in the victimization of others (typically involving a group-type setting) are, themselves, more likely to become crime victims. Engaging in risk-taking behaviors, such as being involved in a fight or being aggressive or threatening, increases students’ risk for both violent and theft victimization, especially when these activities are combined with living in a dormitory.
Students’ lifestyles also contribute to their attractiveness as targets. Research more generally shows the risk of victimization increases for those unable to mount effective resistance, who possess property that is valuable or desirable, who find themselves in circumstances inhibiting effective self-protective actions, or who are frequently exposed to potential offenders. In the case of students, those living in residence halls and possessing desirable property, such as computers and other electronic equipment, are more suitable targets than are students who live alone in an apartment or with their parents. Students who spend multiple nights per week out “partying”—especially if they are consuming alcohol—also increase their attractiveness as targets.
Beyond exposure to prospective offenders and being a suitable target, the absence of capable guardians is a third key aspect of how students’ routine activities increase their risk for victimization. Generally, what little research that has been done on guardianship shows that students do not regularly employ tools or activities in their daily routines that reduce their chances for victimization. Further, college students who spend more time with strangers are seemingly more trusting and show lower levels of guardianship activities, and students who mainly rely on automobile transportation in the evening to get them to and from campus are less likely to employ effective guardianship activities.
One of the most important findings about students’ campus victimization is the role of alcohol, a key factor in college students’ lifestyles (Goldman, Boyd, & Faden, 2002). Evidence compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s College Alcohol Study (CAS), based on four national-level studies of college student drinking patterns conducted during the mid- to late 1990s, indicated that about 80% of students enrolled at 4-year colleges and universities on a full-time basis self-reported that they regularly drank alcohol; about 50% of these students routinely “drank to get drunk”; some 40% engaged in binge drinking (drank four or more drinks in a row at one sitting in the 2 weeks prior to completing the survey); and roughly 20% of students frequently binge drank—at least three times during a 2-week period.
A final component of the social context of campus crime involves recent efforts to use crime-mapping technology to identify “hot spots” of crime on college campuses (Paulsen & Robinson, 2004). Research on crime more generally shows that it is not randomly distributed in space. Rather, it tends to cluster in certain places and tends to involve specific kinds of offending. Using sophisticated mapping technology and calls-for-service data compiled by police departments, researchers have identified “hot spots,” that is, places—residences, bars, hotels, convenience stores, etc.—about which a disproportionate number of police calls for service arise. They have also been able to identify the specific offense(s) that characterize a particular hot spot—for example, domestic violence.
Crime-mapping technology and hot spots analyses are being used both by campus crime researchers and by campus police departments to better understand the spatial distribution of campus crime, including how crime clusters within a particular building (e.g., a residence hall or classroom building). Recent research confirms that “hot spots” of crime exist on college campuses and that student residence halls, in particular, are hot spots for such offenses as drug violations, breaking and entering, assault, and sexual assault. Areas of high pedestrian traffic, such as those that join two segments of a campus or that directly surround major parking lots or decks, have also been identified as hot spots for such offenses as breaking and entering of vehicles. Using hot spots analyses, researchers and police officials can help to design and implement interventions designed to “cool” campus hot spots. For example, installing closed-circuit television (CCTV) in parking lots or decks may help to reduce breaking and entering of motor vehicles or vandalism of them.
In summary, national-level studies of college students’ victimization patterns show that college students, compared to people of similar ages who are not students, have lower overall levels of victimization, particularly violent victimization. These studies show that theft, and not violence (despite media obsession with shootings and other violent acts on campus), is by far the most frequent type of victimization. The surveys also show that a significant percentage of college women are victims of various forms of sexual assaults and that many victims never report the incident to proper authorities. Victimization surveys also show that students’ lifestyles—their routine activities— contribute to their on-campus victimization, particularly when those activities involve consuming alcohol or taking illegal drugs. Finally, recent research into the spatial distribution of campus crime shows that college campuses, like neighborhoods, have “hot spots” of crime—places where crime clusters and from which a disproportionate number of police calls for service originate. Using high-tech analyses, researchers and campus law enforcement officials can design and implement interventions to “cool” hot spots of crime on campus. Thus, while overall levels of on-campus victimization do not warrant describing PSIs as “ivory towers,” neither do they warrant characterizing them as “war zones” or “free fire zones” as some media sources have described them.