Before the 1960s, institutions of higher learning were regarded as sanctuaries–places where crime and criminal justice did not intrude. The 1970s marked one of the most significant decades in the evolution of violence-related crime in higher education. Since the deaths of four students at Kansas State University, the incidence of violent crimes on campus has increased and the types of violence have proliferated.
Crimes on U.S. college campuses have also been influenced by political implications. For example, some citizens have advocated for fewer guns and more stringent gun control laws, while gun advocates have called for legislation permitting students and faculty to carry concealed weapons on campus.
Crimes in postsecondary institutions (including murder, aggravated assault, hazing, and alcohol and drug abuse) have both threatened campus safety and affected students’ quality of life. The subject of violent crime in colleges has received significant attention by Congress and educational officials during the last two decades. In 1990, Congress enacted the Campus Security Act and the Student Right-to-Know Act, mandating that all postsecondary institutions make crime statistics available to the campus community, prospective students, and their parents. In 1991, the law was renamed in memory of Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student who was murdered on campus in 1986. Institutions are also required to develop safety measures and procedures for notifying the authorities when a crime occurs.
While criminal acts are not new in higher education, the frequency and magnitude of violent crimes at some American college campuses have been highlighted by the media. A survey that was conducted after the enactment of the 1990 legislation reported 30 murders in 2,400 institutions of postsecondary education. Equally disturbing, other types of violent crimes occurred on these campuses as well during the 1991-1992 academic year. In 1998, the Chronicle ofHigher Education reported 19 murders on four-year college campuses. Over a three-year period (1998-2000), the Department of Education reported 53 murders at U.S. colleges and universities. The report also noted 3,822 aggravated assaults in 1998, 3,606 aggravated assaults in 1999, and 3,644 aggravated assaults in 2000. In 2002, the Department of Education reported 23 murders on college campuses, up from 17 in 2000.
Concealed weapons pose one of the greatest dangers to higher education communities. Over the past two decades, there have been approximately 14 major shootings on college campuses nationwide: Three were committed by campus outsiders, one by a visiting parent, and eight by current or former graduate students (in nursing, medicine, or law). Violent crime on college campuses is prevalent, but several murderous incidents have shocked the country over the years. At the University of Texas in Austin in 1966, 16 people were killed and 32 were hospitalized. Ten years later, at California State University in Fullerton, 7 people were executed and 2 others wounded. In 1991, at the University of Iowa, 5 people were murdered and another paralyzed before the gunman committed suicide. At Northern Illinois University on Valentine’s Day in 2008, 5 people including the gunman died; another 18 were wounded. The shootings at Virginia Tech in April 16, 2007, which claimed 33 lives (including the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho), had deep resonance at the University of Texas, where the first university massacre occurred. Aside from those killed, the gunman wounded 17 more people, making it the bloodiest massacre by a single person in U.S. history.
Several other acts of violence were committed by students in the 1990s. At Simon’s Rock College, two people were killed and four others wounded in 1992; at San Diego State University, three professors were murdered in 1996. In 1998, at Wayne State University, a professor was murdered. In 1995, a student conspired to commit murder at Florida State University, while a shooting spree occurred at the University of Arizona but no one was injured.
Between 2000 and 2001, four people were murdered by former students: one at the University of Arkansas, and three at Appalachian School of Law. In 2005, four more people died (including the gunman) at Arizona State University, and a debate coach at Stanford University in Alabama stabbed a student to death in 1989. Other college incidents include a professor at Louisiana Tech University who attacked a colleague with a hammer; a Tidewater Community College professor who conspired to kill a colleague in 2006; and a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell who was attacked with a knife. While many incidents involved students and teachers, other assaults were committed by strangers, such as when Julian Robbins killed one Penn State student and wounded another. At Indiana University, an armed stranger assaulted a professor.
There are approximately 16 million students enrolled in 4,200 colleges and universities in the United States. Although violent crimes are a small fraction of all crimes committed on campus (hovering at less than 1% in many instances), there is still a good reason to be concerned. Currently, the number of violent crimes being reported in postsecondary institutions is moving upward, a trend that appears likely to continue unabated into the immediate future.
After the deadly 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, campus security became a highly visible issue, and the search for effective methods to curb violent crimes was highlighted. Institutions around the nation took a hard look at their campus security measures and considered how they could be upgraded. Following other incidents of violent crimes on college campuses, some institutions (including those in Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, and Mississippi) focused on improving communications and security systems inside the campuses. In September 2007, Delaware State University in Dover earned praise for responding quickly to a shooting incident on the campus. Three day earlier, the University of Maryland at College Park had successfully alerted students by cell phones, warning them of imminent danger on the campus.
Hazing and alcohol-fueled incidents are another form of violent crime on campus that has become more prevalent. Fraternities and sororities also contribute to excessive (and frequently dangerous) drinking on college campuses. While fraternities promote self-improvement, they may also promote dangerous behavior such as binge drinking, hazing and other forms of physical abuse, and other life-threatening activities. Research shows that at least one college student has died from alcohol poisoning-related initiations every year from 1970 to 2005. An infamous hazing incident at Alfred University in 1978 led to the death of a 20-year-old freshman. Other hazing-related deaths occurred at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1997, where a freshman died; at Auburn University, where Chad Saucier died; and at Wabash College, where an 18-year-old freshman died in 2008. At St. Louis University, a student died after receiving electrical shocks while his skin was coated with flammable chemicals. Another student at the State University of New York died in 2003 after he was forced to drink excessive amounts of water for 10 days.
In other cases, students have suffered permanent damage to their organs from hazing. For example, in 1988, five hockey players at Kent State University were forced to drink a mixture of alcoholic beverages and one student was hospitalized.
At the University of Northern Colorado in 1990, a baseball player was paralyzed after sliding into a pool of mud. During the 1999-2000 academic year, nine hockey players at the University of Vermont were badly injured in hazing. Members of the band at Southern University in Baton Rouge were beaten (and two victims were hospitalized) in 1983. A University of Michigan student suffered kidney failure after being deprived of food, and Ivery Lucky of Florida A&M University suffered renal failure after being beaten as part of a hazing ritual. This deadly behavior led to the growth in the number of states with anti-hazing statutes, from 25 in 1990 to 44 in 2006.
Hate-motivated crimes are intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of that person’s race, national or ethnicity origin, religion, disability, or gender/sexual orientation. Hate-motivated crime that targets students, staff, and faculty deprives everyone on the campus of a chance to live and learn in an atmosphere free from fear and intimidation. In 2007, three football players assaulted Palestinian students at the Quaker-affiliated Guilford College campus in North Carolina. While they almost certainly occur frequently, hate crimes are often under-reported on campuses because victims are reluctant to come forward, due to fear of retaliation and repercussions.
The Virginia Tech massacre led many campuses to develop plans to alert students, staff, and faculty of safety threats in minutes, using cell phone and text messaging technology. The University of Maryland is among the hundreds of colleges that have signed contracts with vendors to help with text and voice alerts to students’ cell phones in the event of emergencies. Institutions have also increased the security presence on their campuses. For example, in 1988, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus employed 37 police officers. Colleges and universities are expected not only to protect the campus community from intruders, but also to take active steps to reduce the major risk factors associated with campus violent crimes. A more productive approach would focus on breaking the culture of silence that prevents students from reporting when a threat is imminent and reaching out to students before they commit violent crimes. Substance abuse and acts of violence should never be tolerated or accepted as forms of coping on campus. Each campus should be prepared to handle emergencies in a timely manner through ongoing education and development of a responsive culture involving staff, faculty, and students. While campuses are relatively safe, coordinated planning will ensure preparation for all future emergencies.
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