BLACKSBURG, Va.—The carnage at Virginia Tech has universities and parents nationwide asking the same question: What can be done to keep college students safe?
The answer may simpler than it looks. That's because homicides on campuses, until now, have been very rare. And focusing on mass homicides may be shortsighted, given drug and alcohol abuse rates that are far more deadly and sexual assaults that are far more common.
According to a tally of campus homicides kept by Security on Campus, Inc., a nonprofit based in King of Prussia, Pa., only about 20 students a year were killed on campuses nationwide in the average year before Virginia Tech.
The U.S. Department of Education, which counts fewer off-campus killings of college students in its records, puts the average in recent years at under 10.
That's not many compared to the 1,700 students a year who die of alcohol abuse, according to Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus. The organization was founded in 1987 by the parents of Jeanne Clery, a freshman at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., who was beaten, raped and murdered in her dorm room.
The Clery family's campaign led to passage in 1990 of a federal law that requires colleges and universities to disclose their campus crime statistics and security policies.
Those statistics reveal, Carter said, that alcohol and sexual assault are "the most common threats to student safety."
The Clery Act, as it's called, created shock waves by revealing crime on campus was far more common than parents knew or administrators admitted.
The identification of a Virginia Tech student as the suspect in the killings makes the university's challenge more complicated: How do you protect students not just from outsiders but from other students?
Given that challenge, Virginia Tech officials did all they could, said Stewart Scales, a freshman from Big Stone Gap, Va. "There's really not a lot that you can do in a situation like that," he said. "I think they handled it well. It's just a horrible event."
In neighboring North Carolina, where two UNC-Wilmington students were slain by classmates in 2004, the state's public universities have initiated criminal background checks. Last year, they were ordered for roughly 1,000 applicants and about 100 were denied admission.
UNC-Wilmington Chancellor Rosemary DePaolo said students feel better for the checks. "They understand we live in a violent world and these things can happen anywhere," she said. "At the same time, they want to be reassured, understandably, that we have done everything we can to create a safe learning environment."
According to a 2003 Justice Department analysis, rape, sexual assault and other violent crimes have declined in recent years for victims 18-to-24 years old.
The report, prepared by the Office of Justice Programs, concluded that college students were less likely to be victims of violent crime than non-students in the same age group. The difference was 68 victimizations per 1,000 students annually versus 82 for non-students.
Counted together in the violent crime category were rape, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault. Homicides were not counted because the National Crime Victimization Study, from which the findings were drawn, relies on interviews with victims.
Violent crime against K-12 students is down, too, according to a separate Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, especially among students aged 12-to-18, where the problem is greatest. The percentage of those students reporting serious violent crimes dropped to 0.3 percent in 2005 from 0.7 in 1995.
Some of the gains are illusory because "a lot of schools under-report crimes on campus," said Allison Kiss, program director of Security on Campus.
Nonetheless, "I think violent crime on campus has gone down," Kiss said.
For more information about campus violence, go to: www.securityoncampus.org.
To review reported crimes and violence at a particular college, go to its Web site and search using the term "Clery Act," the federal law that requires colleges to list campus crimes.
To review the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports of serious crimes at 400 large U.S. colleges and universities, go to: www.fbi.gov/ucr/05cius/data/table—09.html
(Stancill reported from Blacksburg; Greve, from Washington.)