Three murders in less than a week have sent three Southern college campuses into grief, and brought renewed attention to campus safety — a topic already on the minds of parents and students after recent mass killings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois.
While the latest available figures show college slayings have declined, many students are still on edge.
"I definitely have to say looking out for your surroundings is something I'm doing a lot more," said Rebecca Simon, an Auburn University freshman who lived in the same off-campus residence hall as Lauren Burk, the Auburn student whose body was found last week on a roadside about 5 miles from the university in one of the recent high-profile killings.
"I'm very aware of who's around me," she said.
After rising from 1999 to 2002, campus homicides dropped substantially between 2002 and 2006. But that was before the April 2007 murders of 32 people at Virginia Tech. The final numbers from 2007 will likely show a substantial uptick, according to Daniel Carter of the group Security on Campus.
It's unknown whether the latest killings mean violence affecting college students is worsening. The latest Department of Justice figures showed campus violent crime declining 9 percent over the latest 10-year period, but those numbers go up only to 2004.
Though it's hard to measure, experts generally agree college campuses are substantially safer than the society at large when it comes to crimes like murder — though not necessarily sexual assault. An informal estimate based on the total number of college students puts the average on-campus murder rate in recent years at less than one-fiftieth the national average.
However, it's important to remember most crime affecting college students occurs off-campus. None of the three recent murders would likely be reported under the federal Clearly Act, which would cause them to show up in national campus crime figures, experts say.
Overall, there were just eight cases of on-campus homicide and non-negligent manslaughter in 2006 — the year before the Virginia Tech slayings — according to federal figures collected by Security on Campus, down from 11 in 2005 and 23 in 2002. That compares to an estimated 1,000 annual student fatalities from suicide, and even more from accidents.
Still, the apparent randomness of two of the latest killings is particularly scary.
The first came last Tuesday night, when Burk was found fatally wounded on the side of an off-campus road, her car burning in a campus parking lot. The 23-year-old man charged in her killing told police he tried to rape her before he shot her, according to documents read in court Monday.
Last Wednesday, University of North Carolina student body president Eve Carson's body was found in the street in a wealthy Chapel Hill, N.C. neighborhood, about a mile from UNC's campus. Police have said she was shot in the temple and apparently targeted randomly.
Police charged a 21-year-old with first-degree murder in her death Wednesday and a second suspect, a 17-year-old who also faces murder charges, surrendered to officers early Thursday.
The University of Arkansas was grieving following the death Monday of senior Katharine Wood at an off-campus apartment. A man whom friends and relatives said had stalked Wood was arrested in Oklahoma.
The attention surrounding the killings appears to have grabbed some students' attention. Keith Sims, of the group Safe Campuses Now, expects more demand for self-defense classes the group runs with the University of Georgia police department once students return from spring break.
"I think we are going to be inundated with requests," Sims said. "Parents are very frightened right now."
Some campuses are reminding students of services providing late-night ride services. Auburn has increased its police presence. UNC used a new emergency text-messaging system for the first time after the shooting there.
UNC spokeswoman Lisa Katz said she hadn't heard of anyone at the university fielding calls from parents calling about security concerns.
"Certainly whenever something like this happens, students probably call their parents just to say, 'I'm OK,'" she said.
And almost certainly parents are responding with reminders to be careful.
Karen Smith said she regularly calls her daughter, a University of Georgia senior, to remind her to check under and inside her car before getting in, and to lock her door when she leaves the house.
"She's in that young single stage and she lives by herself," Smith said. "Every time something happens, I say, 'See. That's why I fuss at you. Be careful.'"