What Families Think: Campus Safety and Violence: Take a More Comprehensive Perspective in Informing Families about Your College's Environment, Programs, and Policies

By Greene, Howard; Greene, Matthew | University Business, April 2008 | Go to article overview

What Families Think: Campus Safety and Violence: Take a More Comprehensive Perspective in Informing Families about Your College's Environment, Programs, and Policies


Greene, Howard, Greene, Matthew, University Business


THE PHONE RINGS. THERE ARE REPORTS OF GUNshots on campus. Apparently someone is holed up in a tall building in the middle of the university campus, firing shots from a rifle at random passersby, police, and campus security officers. Eventually he is subdued.

Afterward the investigation turns up these various facts: he was depressed and suicidal, and had visited with campus medical and health professionals well in advance of the shootings; he had served in the military but was discharged; he had begun acting erratically and was having marital difficulties; his parents had divorced; he purchased his weapons legally; he killed his wife and mother prior to the shootings; he left a detailed suicide note, making it clear that he didn't intend to survive his violent rampage. Illinois or Virginia in the 21st century? Could be, but this incident occurred over 40 years ago, in 1966 at The University of Texas--a defining moment for a college generation.

Since then, a number of more or less similarly horrific violent incidents have occurred not only on college but also on secondary and even elementary school campuses across the country. Their names are familiar: Jonesboro, Springfield, Columbine.

Unfortunately, major acts of violence, facilitated by access to firearms and to models of such behavior, are nothing new at educational institutions. Yet they are also exceedingly rare, and are actually anomalous forms of campus violence. Educational environments tend to be among the safest places for students during the day. Children, adolescents, and young adults face greater dangers from motor vehicles, recreational accidents, substance use, violence in their neighborhoods, and even from their own families and their own hands. Mental health counselors will often point to the greater prevalence of suicide among young people than homicide. Of course, much of the dramatic violence seen recently on college and school campuses is both suicidal and homicidal.

A great many studies of these and other recent and past school shootings have gone to great lengths to understand ways to prevent, react to, and recover from major acts of violence. Lessons have been adapted from approaches to handling natural disasters and terrorist threats. Technology has offered administrators new tools to communicate with staff, students, parents, police, and the press, as well as the means to keep our largely open college campuses more secure and better monitored. From door locks swiped with student IDs to hidden surveillance cameras to armed guards on campus, students today certainly face a different campus environment than those of a generation ago.

Weighing on Their Minds

Our own research and experience counseling students and parents over many years has shown significant concerns among students on college campuses about personal safety and the secondary effects of drug and alcohol usage. For example, student interviews at elite college campuses for our book Inside the Top Colleges (HarperCollins, 1999) revealed worries about date rape, physical abuse, theft, and general concerns over personal safety. These were reflected as well in a Harvard University School of Public Health study released in 1995.

The federal Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990 (now known as the Jeanne Clery Act, after the Lehigh University [Pa.] freshman murdered in her dorm room in 1986) required all higher ed institutions receiving federal funds to report annual crime statistics. The law has been amended several times to add provisions for victims, expand reporting requirements, and link reported data with Megan's Law sex offender information availability. Though campus crime and safety data are still difficult to gather, sometimes uneven, and sometimes not clearly delineated or accumulated between on-campus and off-campus crime and violence, the system has continued to improve and offer families more information about the campus environments of the colleges they are considering (see www.

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What Families Think: Campus Safety and Violence: Take a More Comprehensive Perspective in Informing Families about Your College's Environment, Programs, and Policies
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