Moving into the new environment of the college or university residence hall is a frightening experience for some teenagers. To others, the naivety of the sheltered family continues. These young people eventually adapt to reality–some because they change attitudes to accommodate the new situation. Others, unfortunately, learn some hard and frequently costly lessons.Going from the family setting where members are protective of each other, to one where there is a collection of frequently conflicting personal values, leads the unsuspecting student into an area with new threats and risks.
The college residence hall is only one of many separate and unique environments in which new students find themselves. Their room is a sanctuary from potential criminal incidents–burglary and theft of valuable property, and unwanted sexual activity. Similar exposures exist in all areas of the campus.
Parents want to ensure their prospective college student will be in an environment relatively free of danger. A problem arises when attempting to identify potential risk information that is sometimes confusing, and occasionally deliberately misleading.
The Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act (Public Law 101-542) was signed into law in November 1990 and amended several times in subsequent years. Title II of this Act is known as the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990. This Act requires institutions participating in student financial aid programs under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 to disclose information about campus safety policies and procedures and to provide annual statistics of certain crimes occurring on campus–the statistics may be found on the Internet at www.ope.gov. The report is to be distributed to all current students and employees and, upon request, to prospective students and employees.
Over the years, the reporting criteria have changed. The latest crime statistics available encompass 1998 - 2000, with available enrollment figures based on 2000 Fall enrollment. The required offenses to be reported in 2000 included:
An exception to the mandatory reporting criteria of the Campus Security Act is that crimes reported to counselors or clergy enjoy completely optional reporting for all calendar years. Depending on the institution, this could cause considerable under-reporting of criminal offenses. At an institution supported and directed by a religious group, the individual responsible for campus security could be a member of the clergy. The question is whether the crimes are reported to this person in his role as a clergyman or as the person responsible for security–an issue of mandatory versus optional reporting.
A southwestern college reported 12 forcible sex offenses occurred in on-campus residence halls in 2000. Another college in the northeast reported three forcible sex offenses for the same period. Which school is safer for dormitory residents?
At first glance, it would appear that the college with 12 offenses was more dangerous. However, it must be remembered that the reported statistics reflect only the number, not the relative ratio, of incidents. When measured against the student population, the institution with 12 offenses had 0.19 percent of the total number of female students as a victim of a forcible sex offense–the other college had a rate of 3.85 percent. The offense rate is a better indicator of exposure than the number of offenses.
Compliance with the Act obviously varies with the institution and is complicated by a mixture of conflicting interpretation of the requirements. A review of some of the statistics brings the validity of the offense numbers into question. Is it believable that a college in one of the largest cities in the United States and with an undergraduate enrollment in excess of 15,000 students had no forcible sex offenses and only three burglaries committed in residence halls during a three-year period? The statistics may be completely accurate but it is important to identify security related factors that could make this possible.
As with all crime statistics, it is important to remember that they are based on “reported” crimes and not necessarily actual crimes. Forcible sex offenses are considered the most under-reported crime.
The number of reported crimes may be influenced by many factors:
The reported statistics should be evaluated against different criteria to determine the “real” residence hall safety and security issues. The geographical location is a major influence on college campus crime. When the institution is located in a deteriorating section of a large metropolitan area, the potential for crime may be entirely different from a college located in a very small town or a remote area. With increased population comes an increase in the number of individuals with a propensity for committing crimes.
An institution may basically be a closed community with very limited access to the property. A small college in the southern United States reportedly is completely enclosed with a fence and entry is strictly controlled at all times. Naturally, this will control the number of unauthorized persons entering the property. Crimes still may occur, however at a lesser rate.
In this era of co-ed college living, access control to the residence hall is fundamental. The best and most modern building access control system will not protect a residence hall in the desired manner without constant monitoring and maintenance. A residence hall access control program is virtually worthless if everyone with access to the college property, either as a student or employee, has unrestricted access to every residence hall. While some employees may require complete freedom of access to perform their duties, employee access should be limited to normal work hours. Students should not be granted automatic access to a residence hall other than the one in which they reside.
Maintenance of exterior and interior doors is a continuing problem. There is currently ongoing negligent security litigation against a college where this is the primary negligence issue. A female student was raped in her dormitory room. She had previously complained to several members of the maintenance and administrative staff that the lock on her room door would not function properly. Additionally, she reported that the exterior doors, even though allegedly locked by the campus security patrol, were routinely propped open or, if locked, could easily be pulled open.
Many colleges and universities provide a security presence of some type. The quality of the security force has a direct impact on criminal incidents. Campus security may be provided by a member of the maintenance staff who has been assigned the responsibility as a secondary duty solely to satisfy a legal requirement. In this instance, security is frequently ignored until after an incident has occurred. Other institutions, normally with a large student population, will have a highly professional police or public safety organization. Where there is a dedicated professional security staff, the rate of criminal incidents is lower.
Normally, a residence hall has one or more resident supervisors. Their presence does not necessarily make the residence hall a safer place for the student. The manner in which these resident supervisors perform their duties is a key security issue. One of the matters at issue in the litigation mentioned above is that the resident supervisors were apathetic and tended to ignore problems and complaints. The supervisors’ rooms were also located in areas where they had a very restricted view of corridors and common areas. One of the senior residence hall supervisors complained to the administration when a security officer attempted to quell a disturbance in a residence hall common area. Her attitude was that she was responsible for what happened within the building and security officers should not interfere. Unfortunately, the administration supported the residence hall supervisor and directed that security officers could intervene only at the request of a residence hall supervisor.
When you evaluate the statistics in relation to the above issues, a determination of the relative safety and security of the dormitory resident can be more realistically assessed.
Residence hall safety and security is only one factor in the college decision process. It is especially important when there is a requirement that first-year students reside in a residence hall.
Identifying the many factors determining the actual level of security is a complicated task. Each factor must be evaluated in relation to the other: the validity of crime statistics, security measures in place, potential for compromise of security features, and supervision of residence hall security related activities.
Don’t be misled by marketing statements. Make an informed decision.