Illegal behavior occurring on college campuses includes both traditional types of crime like burglary and rape, as well as emerging forms of crime that involve the use of technology, such as cyberstalking or hacking into computer networks. These behaviors involve at least three contexts: the legal, the social, and the security. Each context comes with its own set of basic issues, which touch the lives of members of the campus community—students, faculty members, and staff. For decades, however, postsecondary institutions (PSIs) treated campus crime as a “dirty little secret” and were less than forthcoming in revealing the extent and nature of the problem or in revealing how they would address the problem via security policies. As a result, members of the campus community and interested observers were literally “in the dark” about the problem.
For the past 20 years, PSIs have been forced to “come clean” about their crime problem. For example, in the legal context, the courts have shown a willingness to hold PSIs liable for on-campus victimizations under legal theories of negligence and breach of contract. This litigation helped force PSIs to be more proactive in acknowledging and addressing the problem. In addition, through congressional and state-level actions, legislation was passed that forced PSIs to begin publicly reporting their crime statistics and security policies, and ensuring that in cases involving oncampus sexual assaults, both accuser and accused were guaranteed basic rights. Proponents of such legislation argue that greater dissemination of campus crime information would lead to reductions in on-campus victimizations because students, faculty members, and staff would begin taking better precautions to reduce their chances of victimization. However, critics suggest that the legislation is seriously flawed and represents little more than a symbolic effort by legislatures to address the problem.
In addition, the past 20 years have seen tremendous increases in social scientific research, resulting in several large-scale victimization surveys being conducted that have helped to uncover trends and patterns in campus crime, including the magnitude of the problem of violence against women on college campuses and the role played by students’ lifestyles in contributing to their victimization, especially the role of alcohol (the social context). These studies have documented that college students’ overall levels of on-campus victimization are lower than nonstudents’ of comparable ages; that theft and not violence is the most common form of on-campus victimization facing students; that students victimize other students; that many victims do not report their victimization to any campus or law enforcement authorities; and that a significant portion of college women experience a wide range of sexual victimization during their college years, including harassment, stalking, assault, and rape. These studies further show that students’ lifestyles result in their exposure to motivated offenders while simultaneously making them attractive targets for victimization, yet students routinely fail to take self-protective steps to reduce their risk of victimization.
Finally, in the past 20 years, the security context of campus crime has become increasingly important as PSIs have been forced by the courts, legislation, and pressure from members of the campus community to address safety and security issues on their campuses. As a result of these pressures, campus law enforcement agencies have emerged as an important component of the security context as these agencies have taken steps to become more “legitimate” in the eyes of the campus community and “user friendly” by focusing more attention on connecting with the needs of the campus community. PSIs and their security operations also have had to address a new form of campus crime involving the use of information technology, which threatens the very lifeline of the college or university through such activities as network intrusions or hacking into sensitive databases, or through such activities as cyberstalking or illegal file sharing.
The issue of campus crime is no longer simply about determining “how much is there,” but is instead a multidimensional problem that poses challenges and opportunities on several fronts. How PSIs address these challenges and opportunities will certainly shape understanding of campus crime as well as the risks it poses to members of the campus community.
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