Security becoming a factor in college selection

Friday, May 9, 2003

Academics, cost, lifestyle. And this spring, as parents and high school seniors have considered which college to choose, another factor has been gaining more attention -- crime on campus.

"We certainly feel morally responsible, when we advise students, to point out that safety is part of the picture," Connecticut education consultant Marcia Rubinstien said, "just as much as finding a curriculum that's good for you and an ambiance that suits you."

These days, when Rubinstien counsels high school students and their parents, she guides them to Web sites that provide links to campus crime statistics -- though some in academe warn the numbers might not be complete.

"This is a much more important issue than it was 20 years ago and, in terms of Sept. 11, even two years ago," said Tom Nelson, the editor and publisher of the California-based Campus Safety Journal.

Before his daughter left for college, Mark Sklarow cautioned her about the risks to women on campuses, and advised her to cover the top of beverage cups while attending parties -- a step to discourage tampering with a date-rape drug.

Sklarow, the executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, said over the past few years he has heard of more and more parents taking similar precautions.

Security Web site

During her daughter's college search last year, Lisa Treister of Miami consulted the campus crime data posted on the Web site, operated by Security On Campus -- a nonprofit advocacy group started by the family of Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student raped and murdered in her dormitory room in 1986.

"It wasn't the make-or-break decision, but we did check it and I thought it was a pretty interesting Web site," Treister said. "People are looking at it, and people are definitely concerned about it."

Triester's daughter, Emily, settled on Boston University, an urban campus where tight security allayed her family's worries.

Pat Bosco, the dean of student life at Kansas State University, said safety also has become a consumer question for rural schools, like his in Manhattan, Kan.

"We're seeing the perception of crime everywhere," Bosco said.

By law, colleges and universities must address safety concerns by prominently displaying information about campus security measures on their own Web sites.

But with the issue gaining attention, the various means used to measure security -- especially the provisions enacted under the so-called "Clery Act" -- are coming under more scrutiny.

Shepherded through Congress by Security on Campus, the law requires schools receiving federal subsidies to report crime data each year to the U.S. Department of Education.

While acknowledging the law's benefits, many officials nonetheless worry that the system punishes schools that file accurate statistics to the database.

"There's almost an incentive not to report," said Sklarow.

One problem, Nelson said, is that schools tend to independently decide what constitutes on- and off-campus crime. Some schools report incidents within one block of a campus while others record crimes that occur as far as three blocks away, he pointed out.

Howard Clery III said Security on Campus is studying ways to make colleges more accountable.

"They're interpreting the law in different ways, so we're looking to tighten that up," said Clery, brother of the slain Lehigh student.

Although overall national statistics on college crime have not been tabulated, Gerald Williamson, the vice principal of student services at East Central University, a 4,300-student state school in Ada, Okla., says that acts of campus violence need to be placed in perspective.

"If you have any population contained within 10 acres, where you have 5,000 people a day passing through, there will be things that occur," said Williamson. "But probably the safest place you can be nationwide is on a college campus."

Sklarow, with the Virginia-based consultants association, believes awareness and prevention are as important as consulting crime statistics.

In addition to the warning about date rape, Sklarow asked his daughter to call someone with her cell phone during solitary nighttime walks through campus.

There have been times when Sklarow has been the recipient of that call in the wee hours. He says he doesn't mind a bit.

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