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"Nobody thinks it can happen to them," said Catherine Bath, executive director of Campus Security Organization.
The "it" is crime, and on college campuses around the country, that can mean anything from property theft to rape and murder.
Jenna Patterson of Newburgh, N.Y., is heading off to college, but which school is best for Jenna, and how her family will pay for it, are issues Jenna and her parents have yet to resolve. In the eighth installment of this FOX series, Jenna's dad says it's who you know that makes the difference.
Many campus crimes, however, can be prevented if parents and students are more educated, Bath said.
"The chances aren't high, but if you can prevent it, why not?" she said.
Bath, whose 20-year-old son died of alcohol abuse in 1999 while a student at Duke University, cited alcohol as a primary factor in many campus crimes.
"People make themselves vulnerable when they get wasted," she said. "After that it makes it easier for students to get robbed, sexually assaulted, or to become a perpetrator."
Maj. Robert Riley of the University North Carolina Wilmington Police Department agrees.
"Most of the crime prevention problems involve students being aware of their surroundings and not being under the influence of alcohol," Riley said.
Campus tragedies like the recent bikini-strangulation murder at Clemson University have put the topic of college safety on the front burner.
Bath said many students and parents are unaware of laws having to do with campus crime, including the Clery Act, which requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their respective campuses.
The act is named for Jeanne Clery, a then-19-year-old Lehigh University student who in 1986 was raped and murdered in her dorm room.
Riley said although the Clery Act helps inform parents and students of their right to access campus crime statistics, it doesn't provide the whole picture.
"Although we comply with the Clery Act 100 percent, I think it probably addresses the campus crime issues, and it doesn't take into account surrounding areas," Riley said. "It doesn't give a comprehensive picture of the area, just of the school. For that, you need to look at the local police and their stats too."
For instance, a readily available 2004 FBI report of on-campus crime at more than 500 colleges shows there were 12 murders, 548 forcible rapes, 648 robberies, and 1,350 aggravated assaults reported that year. Students and parents interested in finding out about off-campus crime statistics, however, need to check with the individual colleges and local law enforcement officials.
Riley said UNC Wilmington has taken steps to limit access to all residence areas, provide rape aggression defense programs, place emergency call boxes throughout the campus, and dispatch patrol cars and unmarked vehicles around campus 24 hours a day.
John Cook, the chief of police at University of Maryland Baltimore, said that school's department of public safety puts a lot of effort into alcohol abuse prevention to try to reduce the risk that drinking will contribute to any type of violence.
"We encourage students to be responsible and prevent them from being victims of crime," Cook said.
Cook said when students and parents are on campus, they feel safe, but it's usually not students but off-campus intruders who commit crimes like theft, rape or assault.
Larger universities located in more metropolitan areas deal with off-campus outsiders on a regular basis. Officials at universities like Boston University and New York University, both located in the middle of large cities and readily accessible to non-students, say they take safety issues very seriously.
John Kresser, a senior studying finance at Boston University, said the security at his school is extremely strict. BU campus police ride bikes during the day and drive around campus at night. A free shuttle runs throughout the campus until 3 a.m. and police escorts are available to walk students home at night.
NYU and BU dorms have security guards who check school identification of both residents and guests before letting anyone in. In order to have a visitor, students need to get a guest pass three days in advance; even off-campus students need residents to sign them in. BU guests can't get into dorms after midnight, and they get kicked out after 2 a.m.
"The rules at BU are so strict, it makes it very difficult for sexual assault to happen," said Kresser. "Even though I feel safe, I feel like BU doesn't trust its students and looks for any excuse to kick us out of dorms or school."
Jeremy Ricketts, a junior at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., said he's never felt unsafe on campus because of the location of his school.
"Babson is in a suburb, so the security on campus is kind of relaxed," said Ricketts, who is living in an NYU dorm this summer during an internship in New York. "Experiencing security at NYU is totally different," Ricketts said, indicating it was a lot tougher.
Bath advises students against walking alone at night and going to parties solo. She suggests keeping doors locked all the time, being careful with who you give your phone number to, and not lending your keys to anyone.
"Many of the safety precautions seem like common sense, but students and parents are too reliant on the fact that universities are safe places where nothing happens," Bath said.
A 2005 survey of 366 campus mental health centers shows 375 cases of obsessive pursuit (stalking), with 92 students injured and one student killed by stalkers.
"Stalking is a bigger problem than people think and it should be taken very seriously," Bath said. "College campuses make it very easy to stalk."
A student from University of Florida, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said her roommate's lab partner stalked her last spring semester, and they didn't even know each other.
"He found out my number, screen name, and he would show up at my place looking for me," the student said. "It was the scariest thing because he didn't get the point."
She never pressed charges, but she did take action by changing her dorm and cell-phone numbers, and warning the stalker to stay away. Luckily, he complied.
The Alcohol Factor
Many schools recognize that alcohol plays a large part in many campus crimes, so they try to crack down on its abuse.
John Kresser from BU said one of his friends was caught in possession of alcohol in his dorm in his freshman year and had to face harsh consequences — a letter to mom and dad, a $150 fine, and a notice that if he were caught twice more, he'd be kicked out of housing.
"They have resident assistants sniffing under doors for alcohol," he said. "The majority of people get caught."
Bath blames the problems with campus safety on ignorance of the law. She also said many people keep quiet about potential crime incidents because they weren't supposed to be drinking.
"Students put up with a lot of violence and don't report it," Bath said. "Many blame themselves, but just because you're drunk doesn't give anyone the right to abuse you."
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, BU student John Kresser was wrongly identified as having been caught in possession of alcohol. The student who was caught was one of Kresser's friends.