There aren’t many places, except one’s home, that seem as safe as a college campus. But when you load up your backpack and head to college, “you’re going into the real world,” points out Col. Jeff Martin of the Northern Kentucky University Department of Public Safety. “Anything that can happen in a community can and does happen on a campus.”
That isn’t something that universities like to admit, but a student can be murdered on campus, as happened last year at Western Kentucky University, or die in a fire as did Michael Minger at Murray State University in 1998. These kinds of high-profile tragedies offer somber, much-too-late lessons. In the case of Michael Minger, his legacy will live on as Kentucky law—the Michael Minger Act—which mandates campus-wide reporting of all crimes committed, or attempted, be made available to the public within 24 hours of the first reporting.
The fact that crime can occur on campus doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun on campus. That’s the one thing that college officials, security officers, parents, and students do agree on. You can have fun and still be safe. In most cases, it comes down to making smart decisions.
But then again, there’s something about a college campus…worrying about things besides tests and papers can seem like a waste of time. “Safety is inconvenient,” acknowledges University of Louisville’s Director of Public Safety Wayne Hall, but when you think of the time it takes (and heartbreak) when something has happened, it is so much easier to take those extra minutes to be safe.
Kentucky universities and colleges do spend millions of dollars on security each year. Measures range from access-control doors, intrusion-detection systems, emergency call boxes and cameras, to lighting and trimmed landscaping, to good old-fashioned patrolling in cars and bikes and on foot.
Try this simple safety tip: lock your dorm room and your car. With this one step, you’ve just made it harder for a crook to make you a victim. A crook trolling for an opened door will continue trolling until he or she finds the next opened door or until some watchful person in your residence hall contacts the college’s security office.
Haven’t we all seen a building’s exterior doors propped open with a stick? It happens so innocently, particularly as students are moving in or out of a dorm. Just as students watch the calendar and look forward to moving out from dorms, so do some thieves. “If someone’s going to steal something, you can’t stop them,” says Michael Gray, Safety Team leader at Union College. “You just have to make it as hard as possible to do.”
Another safety glitch, called surfing, has one person legitimately going through a doorway with an access card, and others, following behind, who might not be authorized to enter. That also happens when we hold open a door for a stranger. “A security system is only as good as the people who use it,” says Hall. “Pull that door closed” instead of being polite to someone who might see this opened door as an opportunity.
If you see someone or something suspicious, contact campus police. It’s easier to check out an inquiry, say police, than to eventually have to investigate a crime that might have been prevented.
College is meant to open your eyes to new experiences, and that means entering a new community and interacting with a wider circle of people, many of them strangers. Be cautious of people you’re just getting to know. In high school, you probably knew every student in the building. In your hometown, most people know you and your family, and vice versa. Not the case in college, especially on a campus that can have as many as 35,000 students, with even more than that if you count the surrounding community.
A female student at one Kentucky campus had talked with a man on campus who was from the local community, although not a student. A couple of weeks later, the man confronted her verbally. The confrontation occurred in front of other students and the situation was resolved without the student being injured. She had seen this man on campus several times, but later told police she just hadn’t reported him to security. “That’s what we’re here for,” says Gray. “Students aren’t an interruption; they’re the reason for our work.”
One obstacle to safety is the attitude that bad things happen to other people. Some students, says Gray, think nothing of walking across campus alone at 2 or 3 in the morning. This puts them at risk, whether the perpetrator is a student or someone from the outside community.
The number-one tip for personal safety is “situational awareness,” says Jeffrey C. Fryrear, director of the University of Louisville-based National Crime Prevention Institute. Situational awareness means asking the questions—Where am I? Where is my stuff?—and really paying attention to every step of the way, which might include parking your car where there is adequate lighting and arranging to walk with friends to a destination. “Be aware of your surroundings,” recommends James F. Conneely, vice president for Student Affairs at Eastern Kentucky University, “and always let someone know where you are going and when to expect your arrival.”
When something seems askew, listen to the voice inside your head and that feeling in your stomach that says something isn’t right. Don’t be afraid to tell a person, “You’re in my personal space. Step away.”
Police agencies and security experts offer various advice on protecting yourself if you are accosted. Every instance will vary, and it’s difficult for police to recommend exactly what you should do, but in general, “run and make noise,” advises Sgt. Phil Crumpton, crime prevention coordinator for the Kentucky State Police.
“We’ve had successes on both sides,” those who have fought their assailant and those who have not fought but who have gotten away. The decision lies in your hands, sometimes literally.
Jeffrey Fryrear, who teaches a theory course on crime prevention for undergraduates at the University of Louisville, stresses that a person must size up the situation. Typically police recommend: Don’t let yourself be taken to another location. Put up a fight on the spot rather than allow yourself to be taken to the next location, which will be the perpetrator’s choice—but such a decision must be made based on the situation. It comes down to you making the decision whether you need to fight, says University of Kentucky Public Information Officer Travis Manley. Ultimately the best approach is to not get yourself into a situation that has escalated to this point.
Keep in mind that your elbows and knees can become weapons, as can a heavy book or a magazine rolled up, says Crumpton. Another approach is to toss your possessions—be it a wallet, purse, or backpack—in the opposite direction and run for the light. This forces the thief to choose. A person intent on stealing property will often dash in the direction of the wallet, and you have gained an opportunity to get away.
Guarding your Personal Property
“Nobody knows your area better than you,” says NKU’s Jeff Martin, pointing out that students and teachers know who belongs in the classroom and hallways. In your dorm room, you know immediately when something is out of place.
Theft is the most common crime on college campuses. Once in a while, police will recover stolen items, but stolen items are rarely seen again by their owners.
In investigating thefts in dorm rooms, campus security officers often find that the student just left the door unlocked, to go down the hall to the restroom.
“The addition of computers and related equipment has made some areas more of a target than before,” points out Capt. Larry Nixon of Murray State University. “When stolen, this type of item is more easily marketed. Stereo equipment is also a quick market item, easily disposed of and a source of fast cash. Computer thefts are often the result of a crime of opportunity. By this I mean leaving property unsecured and by chance a person walks by, sees the computer or other item, and takes it.”
Sometimes students make themselves targets on campus, such as the student who had a bumper sticker on his car advertising the brand of stereo he had in the car.
No matter how careful you are with your property, it’s important that you do a written inventory of this property and leave this record at home or another site. Document the make, model, and serial number of each piece of electronic equipment plus any identifying marks. If your computer gets stolen, police with a National Crime Information Center Database terminal will enter your computer’s serial number into the database of stolen property. If a few days later a driver is pulled over by police and your computer is found in the driver’s car trunk and the serial number of the stolen computer is keyed into the database, there will be a match, and police can connect the stolen property to the crime. Police task forces will sometimes run the serial numbers of property in pawn shops. If you can’t provide police with a serial number of your stolen property, a match can never occur.
Computers in dorms are not only targets for hands-on thieves, but also a means for long-distance thieves to scam you out of your money in the privacy of your dorm room. “The Internet is a powerful tool for criminals,” says Crumpton. Unfortunately, the Internet also provides a way for thieves to hide their identity: if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Personal Identity Theft
Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the nation, Crumpton points out, and being a student provides no protection.
The three most frequent ways that identity theft occurs is through the trash can, the mail, and Internet. Shred documents that include important personal information. Don’t ever leave mail, unattended, to be picked up. Always place mail in designated U.S. Postal Service boxes.
“We have to protect our personal information as if it were cash, which is ultimately what it is,” Crumpton says.
The Kentucky State Police recommends that people and organizations not use Social Security numbers as a means of identity. For instance, look at your Kentucky driver’s license. It does not include your Social Security number.
Today it’s common practice for schools to assign a personal identification number to students rather than using the student’s Social Security number as the student’s ID. Unfortunately, the Social Security number still remains a unique personalized number that helps with identification. Consider the difficulty of a registrar distinguishing between two students with the same exact name and birth date, and of females who get married and change their surname. The University of Louisville, for instance, asks for a student’s Social Security number but keeps this number secure within its records. About three years ago, U of L stopped putting Social Security numbers on transcripts being sent out.
When Rick Benningfield started working at Campbellsville University in 1980, there was no round-the-clock security person on staff. As the sole security guard on campus, Benningfield would work the third shift Sunday through Thursday from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and his father would work the third shift on Friday and Saturday nights. “Over the years it has changed so much,” says Benningfield, Campbellsville University’s director of Campus Safety, who also works as a deputy sheriff for Taylor County in the evenings. “They (the university) are really strict here. They enforce their policies. If you don’t enforce a policy, then it’s a suggestion, not a rule.”
Joe Harbaugh, crime prevention and training officer at Western Kentucky University, encourages parents to really talk with their children about safety issues and alcohol and drugs. Sometimes students from small towns will assume that if caught with alcohol or drugs, the officer will just discard the remaining substance and call their parents. Not so at universities. Harbaugh stresses that a student who breaks the law will be arrested and taken to the county jail, and will face charges and later university sanctions.
Personal face-to-face recognition, even in this age of technology, is a reliable way to prevent crime, but universities also supplement this with high-tech tools.
One advanced safety measure on some campuses today is the proximity card. This 2-by-3-inch inconspicuous white card will automatically open the exterior door of a residence hall when a resident of that hall waves the card within inches of an electronic sensor. At Campbellsville University, for instance, a student is issued a card for only the residence hall that he or she lives in, with an encoded start and finish date: in May when the semester ends, the codes in the current proximity cards will become unusable. New cards and codes are issued each semester. The advantage of the proximity card is “quicker access to the building,” points out Robert Stotts, director of Residence Life at Campbellsville University. In most cases, the card can “read” through purses and wallets so the students have almost instant access instead of having to swipe the card through a key pad.
Besides instant entry, proximity cards give university officials a record of the comings and goings in a residence hall, complete with dates and times.
Closed-circuit cameras offer many advantages, but this tool is also expensive and thus is not as widespread as some security experts would recommend.
Are We Safer Now?
Are we any safer today in Kentucky than we were 10 years ago? In some areas, we are, answers Crumpton, although he does not specialize in college safety but in crime prevention for the Kentucky State Police. Crumpton says that criminals constantly change the game. As soon as we solve one trend, another trend will pop up. “We look for trends and try to get ahead. We try to be proactive.”
Still, it takes a combined effort of everyone on campus to make a campus truly safe, explains EKU’s Conneely. “Personal safety is a joint responsibility of the student and university.”
COLLEGE PROGRAMS TO KEEP STUDENTS SAFE
Most campuses offer an escort service to students, faculty, and staff. You can make arrangements to be walked to and from your car in the dark, or even during daylight hours. The University of Louisville has nine bike patrols manned by police officers. At Murray State, a select group of students—called the Racer Patrol—escorts students while walking on campus.
Murray State also has a Work Alone Program in which students, faculty, and staff can notify the Public Safety Department whenever they are working late in office areas. “During that time a member of the Public Safety Department (University Police) will check on the person—approximately every 45 minutes until the person leaves the building or location,” says Capt. Larry Nixon.
At the University of Kentucky, Air Force ROTC cadets provide the escort service on campus. Every night, as part of the SafeCats program, cadets check out a police radio that gives them direct access to campus police in the event of a problem.
Universities, more and more, are involving students in aspects of campus security, a win-win situation for the schools and students.
Beth Wilson, a junior and criminal justice major at Northern Kentucky University, patrols parking lots, writes traffic tickets, and helps with event security as part of NKU’s Department of Public Safety Cadet Program. “We’re here to maintain order,” says Wilson, easily identified by the Cadet Program’s yellow jacket. “We’re here to help.”
She has her eye set on a career in federal law enforcement, and part of her plan is to attend law school when she graduates.
At Western Kentucky University, students have the opportunity to participate in Kentucky’s first and one-of-a-kind University Police Academy. Selected students learn about criminal investigations, patrol procedures, and crime prevention and training. The eight-week academy is not geared to train participants to become law enforcement officers, but to develop a mutual respect and understanding between students, faculty, staff members, and the police department.
WKU sociology major Samantha Jones, one of last year’s participants, found the academy taught her things about herself that she hadn’t learned in the classroom, like that she was physically able to put a person in handcuffs and that women are encouraged to pursue police work.
A mock traffic stop allowed Jones to see the stop from the perspective of a police officer as she approached a dark car with just a flashlight. Following instructions gained from the academy, she asked the mock DUI suspect (portrayed by Officer Joe Harbaugh) to get out of the car. He was chewing gum as some suspects do. “Sir, I need you to spit out your gum,” she told him.
To her surprise, Harbaugh spit the gum at her, emulating something that has happened to him on the job. In an instant, Jones knew—and felt—what university police encounter, and such insight will remain with her as she pursues her goal of eventually becoming a police officer on the Western Kentucky University Police Department.
The best way to prevent crime on campus is to develop a relationship with students so they are willing to report suspicious activity, observes Union College’s Michael Gray and officers at other campuses. It happens quite often that a student will come in to report an incident. Sometimes the reporting comes in through an anonymous call. Yes, some calls will be hoaxes, but in many cases the information gained can be valuable and “it gives you a direction to look,” says Gray.
About 10 years ago, the University of Kentucky initiated an Adopt-a-Cop program. Today, about 28 UK officers “adopt” an individual residence hall or sorority house. The residents in turn “adopt” the police officer. At the beginning of each semester, a pizza party is held, and officers and students begin building friendships.
This has paid off as residents have contacted campus police asking for a specific officer, says UK Police Public Relations Officer Travis Manley. Victims were more comfortable speaking to the resident “adopted” cop because of the professional relationship developed through Adopt-a-Cop.
“Communication is the number-one thing you need to do,” says Samantha Jones, sharing advice that she has learned from campus police. If you’re approached by an officer, realize that police too are under stress. Tactics, like flirting, won’t work. If you are stopped in your car by police, don’t make any sudden moves, she points out. Tell the officer what you’re going to do, such as, “I’m going to reach into my purse and get my license.” Keep in mind, Jones stresses, “Police are protecting your life, not trying to screw up your life.”
SAFETY TIPS ON CAMPUS
1. Top Overall Tip: Know, be aware, and be observant of your surroundings. This includes consulting your university’s Web site to see recent postings of crime reports.
2. Travel with another person or in groups when possible.
3. Pick new friends carefully. Be wary of strangers asking you to do what just doesn’t seem right.
4. Choose well-lighted routes; avoid shortcuts that aren’t as safe.
5. Request an escort on campus, particularly if it’s dark or at an hour when not many people are around.
6. Tell your roommate where you’re going and when you plan to arrive and return.
7. Lock dorm doors and car doors. Never prop open a door.
8. Don’t leave valuables inside a vehicle, and if you must, make sure the items are not visible.
9. “If you feel like something’s wrong, trust your instincts.”
10. Be prepared to defend yourself or run toward the light or other people. Car keys, books, or an elbow can become a temporary weapon.