A Sense Of Safety Shatters at Colleges


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The crimes have been stacking up all year: A Wesleyan University student gunned down at a bookstore cafe, a student at Spelman College felled by a stray bullet, a suspected drug dealer shot to death in a Harvard residence hall. In just the short time since the fall semester began, a Yale graduate student was strangled and a UCLA student was repeatedly stabbed in a chemistry lab.

A nationwide run of campus slayings, extended early Sunday by the killing of University of Connecticut football player Jasper Howard, has shaken a sense of security colleges have long taken for granted, and underscored the mounting challenges they face in keeping students safe.

Attention has focused in recent years on high-profile sprees such as the April 2007 rampage at Virginia Tech, in which a mentally ill student killed scores across campus. But some security specialists say a steady drumbeat of individual murders should send a signal that new steps must be taken to protect students, even at schools in small, isolated towns like this one.

“We need to dispel the myth that bad things won’t happen on campuses,’’ said Gary Margolis, a security consultant and former police chief at the University of Vermont. “We can pretend to believe we exist in havens of academia, but that can lull us into a false sense of security.’’

Criminologists said recent trends are difficult to track because of a lack of current figures. The most authoritative picture of crime on campuses, they said, is a 2008 analysis by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that showed violent crime, which includes rape, robbery and assaults as well as murder, declining by 9 percent on college campuses between 1994 and 2004. According to other federal data, murders also appeared generally to decline, from 19 in 2000 to 8 in 2006. In 2007, the last year for which statistics were available, the number jumped to 45, but 32 of those were victims at Virginia Tech.

There is yet no official count of campus killings this year, but the seemingly steady news of them at a variety of schools across the country has created a widespread impression they could add up to dangerous new proportions.

“This has been a unique start to the school year in terms of violence,’’ said Jonathan Kassa, director of Security On Campus Inc., a nonprofit group that works to reduce campus crime and was founded by Massachusetts natives after the murder of their daughter at Lehigh University.

Donna M. Barry, chair of the American College Health Association’s Campus Violence Coalition, said that, recent deaths aside, campuses remain strikingly safe places where crime rates are lower than the communities that surround them.

“This type of violence is extremely rare and hasn’t increased,’’ she said. “We have to recognize that campuses are probably the safest environment a student can find. As tragic as this is we have to keep it in perspective.’’ Since the Virginia Tech killings, colleges have undertaken a range of preventive measures, arming campus officers, bolstering mental health services, and adopting emergency protocols. But even as college officials ponder possible responses to recent killings, some said there may be few effective solutions.

“We’re a public university, not a gated community,’’ said UConn spokesman Michael Kirk of the campus, which houses 12,000 students. The university has stepped up security following the stabbing, but officials have urged students to remain calm, saying the crime appears isolated.

Yet students yesterday said they were deeply unsettled by the attack, particularly with the perpetrator still at large. Even in this sleepy town of about 14,000 in the northeast part of the state, some 30 miles from Hartford, many students felt their peace of mind had been punctured, perhaps for good.

“You’re out here in the middle of nowhere, you figure you’re safe,’’ said Mary Watson, a sophomore. Watson said she walked home alone the night before the stabbing, but from now on would make sure she had an escort.

The site of the fatal attack, at the heart of the campus where students regularly gather, made resuming their normal routine all but impossible. “You think of the student union as the safest place of all,’’ said Brian Parchmann, a sophomore from Rocky Hill, Conn. “Now everyone is looking around a little differently, a little warier.’’

The mood on campus yesterday was subdued, as students observed a day of silence. Many wore black and spoke only in low voices. At the student union, televisions displayed images of Howard on the football field, and the campus store sold out of T-shirts with Howard’s number six.

On Saturday, students will gather at the student union to watch the team play West Virginia, which is expected to honor Howard before the game. Howard’s death, by a single stab wound to the abdomen, came hours after his team’s homecoming victory over Louisville Saturday, when Howard and two teammates were celebrating at a student-sponsored dance. After a fire alarm went off and some 300 students evacuated the building, an altercation erupted among groups of students and nonstudents, police said.

A second player, Brian Parker, was also stabbed, sustaining minor injuries. Police said they have interviewed dozens of people who attended the dance but have not charged anyone in connection with the killing. Police arrested a man the night of the stabbing and charged him with breaching the peace but have not said he is a suspect. Police also reportedly questioned a Bloomfield man, whose lawyer said he was at the scene but not involved in the stabbing. Police yesterday called on anyone with video or photographs of the stabbing to hand them into authorities.

Security specialists said the end of campus social events, when more students are intoxicated and prone to aggression, are often high-risk.

“It can be a lethal mix of alcohol, drug use, and egos,’’ Margolis said. Kirk said there were two university police officers and eight security guards posted at the event, which was open to students and guests, and that all attendees were patted down as they entered.

“Security at the event was pretty rigorous,’’ Kirk said. “Purses were searched; pockets were emptied.’’

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