The U.S. Dept of Education, the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service recently released an extensive research report (“Campus Attacks – Targeted Violence Affecting Institutions of Higher Learning”) that indicated the incidents of college campus violence had drastically increased in the past 20 years. In the report researchers looked at 272 incidents of “targeted violence” related to colleges since 1900, which indicated that 60% of these incidents have occurred in the last two decades, including almost 100 attacks from 2000 to date. Why the increase, who is responsible, and how do we identify the potential assailants prior to their attack; these were just some of the questions researchers asked of themselves and their data.
When you think of violence on a college campus, most recall April 16, 2007, the date that Virginia Tech senior Seung Hui Cho, 23, used two pistols to murder 32 and wound another 25 students and faculty members. He then took his own life as police battered down the doors he had chained shut on the classroom building that had become his own personal killing field. Others recall the January 2002 triple homicide at Virginia’s Appalachian School of law where a 43-year-old male student, who had flunked out of the tiny law school, used a pistol to kill three and wound another three. Then there was Anne Le, the 24-year-old Yale graduate student who was murdered in September 2009, this allegedly by a 24-year-old college lab tech who then stuffed her body in an open space between two basement walls, and the list of victims goes on and on.
Murder, especially mass murder or other high profile crimes on college campuses usually come to the attention of the public via the media. After all, almost 18 million students attend the 4,300 degree-granting institutions (to include 2,700 four-year colleges or universities and 1,600 two-year colleges) in the U.S. Add to this the additional 3.6 million employees of such institutions to equal almost 22 million people, fully 7% of the U.S. population that is somehow tied to such campuses, notwithstanding the parents at home who send checks to the schools for their child’s tuition, room and board.
The report found that most attacks occur in April in October, perhaps times of stress for students or simply times when assailants felt more comfortable in striking. While murder tends to still shock most of us, especially on a college campus, other personal crimes are also important, to include assaults and incidents of rape. One-in-five women who attend college will be the victim of a sexual assault during her four years on campus. Most know that alcohol abuse can contribute to the probability that a person could become a victim, this by impairing their judgment and otherwise making them less aware of their surroundings and the potential danger they might be in. Each year over 1,700 college students die due to some kind of alcohol related incident while many more are injured or become victims of crimes such as date rape.
The challenge, though, for researchers is to understand the nature of college related crimes of violence and to be able to somehow identify those who could commit these acts, this in order to allow schools to intervene in behalf of their total population. Most know the old adage that “the best predictor of future behavior/violence is past behavior/violence,” but for many in the age groups primarily affected either their past history is unknown, or they commit their first serious act of violence while in college. For some the academic, social and financial challenges associated with the pursuit of higher education can be overwhelming, while for others the change in their culture can simply be too much for them to bear. Others who have poor or non-existent conflict resolution skills choose to model their behavior after characters in conflict that they see on television or in the movies with devastating results.
The Parents Television Council recently found that portrayals of violence against women on television are on the rise, reporting that in the past five years violence directed against women rose 120 % and the rate of increased violence concerning teenagers rose 400%. The Council further reported such increases represent graphic examples of beatings, rapes, torture and murder, plus at times, even the trivialization of such crimes. This has contributed to an increasingly desensitized environment where people can view violence, especially violence against women as somehow acceptable, this along the lines of some rap music that suggests women are acceptable victims for violence. Then there are the ever present video games that award points for murder and mayhem, again perhaps contributing to the lack of sensitivity that some have to human pain, suffering and death. But let’s not just “round up the usual suspects” as we attempt to understand violence against students.
The Campus Attacks Report attributes the rise in crimes of violence on our nation’s college campuses to their ever expanding enrollments, to increased requirements to report crimes on or related to college campuses, and to expanded media coverage (especially the cable tabloid shows that cover the same story night after night to give the appearance that the crime is occurring over and over). The crimes studied, though are nothing new. This report traces murder on campus back to 1909 when a man shot his former girlfriend on her college campus and then shot himself. This type of crime, one related to a current or former intimate relationship made up 33% of the incidents reviewed for this study over the past century, followed by retaliation crimes (Cho at Virginia Tech) and romantic rejection and obsession. It was a believed rejection that provided the emotional catalyst for Virginia Tech student Haiyang Zhu to attack 22-year-old Xin Yang in a college café. After being rebuffed in his attempt to date Yang, he used a knife to behead her in front of other stunned students in January 2009.
As in the murders discussed above, 75% of all of the incidents studied involved the use firearms and knives, but other weapons such as blunt instruments, bombs, poison and, as in the case of Yale graduate student Annie Le, strangulation have been related to the crimes and the killers. Students represented 45% of the attackers, with others being identified as former students, current or former college employees, or others with some type of affiliation with the schools. Many assailants, especially rapists, simply find colleges and nearby related areas as stalking and hunting grounds, places where suitable victims can easily be found. This was the case for the killer of 22-year-old University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin, who was murdered by a 50-year-old sex offender in November 2003; 19-year-old Santa Barbara City College student Brianna Denison, murdered by a serial rapist just off the University of Nevada campus in Reno, Nevada in January 2008; but has yet to be determined in the case of 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, reported missing after a rock concert with her body discovered months later discarded in a field miles from the concert area.
Parents, while college is a time for your child to become more independent and self reliant, you need to continue to be a positive support for your son or daughter in this new and potentially threatening environment. You need to remind your child to be aware of their surroundings and their behavior, as well as the situations that their social calendars can bring them into contact with. You need to maintain contact with your child via telephone, e-mail and text messages, the same social networking that they use on a daily basis and ones that, therefore, are comfortable for them. As many parents continue to pay both the financial as well as the emotional bill for having an offspring in college, you need to encourage your child to strive for success and you need to be aware of any academic or social challenge that they are confronting. While you want them to grown up as they grow away from you, they also need to know that you are there when they need you and that you support them in all ways. College is a pathway to adult life that can be both exciting and frustrating, and one that can benefit from the experiences of those who have traveled similar paths is the past. That means us as parents and our children will be the better for the support that we provide them in these challenging years.
While colleges and universities are much more attuned to the behavioral danger signs ascribed to individuals who might act out in a violent manner against others, there is still no reliable test to accurately separate the depressed and angry student, employee or outsider from tomorrow’s mass murderer. There are, however, things that students can do to help protect themselves, including the following:
- Don’t abuse alcohol or drugs.
- Don’t accept rides from someone you do not know or trust.
- Know where the emergency telephones are located on your campus.
- Walk on well lit paths, avoiding remote short cuts, especially at night.
- Try to travel in the buddy system, especially when out at night.
- At social events, drink only from sealed containers, avoiding punch bowls. If you walk away from your drink for any period of time, get a fresh drink and don’t take any pills or “medicine” offered to you from someone you don’t know.
- Try not to use ATMs at night or when otherwise alone and attend a self-defense class.
- If you note something that appears suspicious, call your campus police. You may save someone from becoming a victim of a violent crime.
- Keep your dorm or apartment doors locked and don’t share your keys with anyone or open the door to someone you don’t know. Use a peep hole viewer to determine who is at your door.
- If you walk or run with earphones, use only one, leaving your “good ear” to hear what is going on around you.
- Do not allow an assailant to take you away in a car or otherwise move you. If he does this, you have no way to call for help.
- If you receive inappropriate to threatening telephone calls, text messages or e-mails, tell someone like your roommate and, if needed, campus police.
- Be aware of your surroundings and always have an “escape route” or a way out, especially in locations such as parties, bars and concerts areas.
- Be sure someone knows where you are. If you don’t plan to be gone all night or over the weekend, be sure someone knows to check on you as you do the same for them.
- Always carry a cel phone and have it programmed with the campus police telephone number and consider the new iPhone application, “Silent Bodyguard.” When activated, it notifies up to four different people that you are in a dangerous situation and sends and resends your exact GPS location every 60 seconds. It’s an app that can save your life!
The number of violent crimes associated with college and university communities continues to rise in dramatic disproportion to the rate of crime in general, especially when compared to the rate of reported violent crimes on college campuses in the early to mid part of the last century. Investigators continue to look for ways to predict violent behavior, but in the meantime students, faculty, staff, and members of the surrounding communities must consider ways to reduce their chances of falling victim to such crimes. This study helps to identity the types of crimes committed and the people who commit them, but it remains the responsible of the individual to find ways to reduce his or her own vulnerability to such offenses.
For more information concerning personal and family safety and security, to obtain a free copy of our DVD “Protecting Children from Predators,” to find out the identity and location of sexual offenders in your community and neighborhood, and to learn how to get the new iPhone, iPod and soon to be new Blackberry application, “Silent Bodyguard,” one that with just one-button allows you to send both a personal distress message to up to four people and transmits your exact GPS coordinates every 60 seconds, go to www.LiveSecure.org.