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Prospective Students Grading Colleges on Safety

May 18, 2003|Steve Giegerich | Associated Press Writer

Academics, cost, lifestyle. And this spring, as parents and high school seniors consider which college to choose, another factor is gaining more attention -- crime on campus.

"We certainly feel morally responsible when we advise students to point out that safety is part of the picture, just as much as finding a curriculum that's good for you and an ambience that suits you," Connecticut education consultant Marcia Rubinstien said.

When Rubinstien counsels high school students and their parents, she guides them to Web sites that provide links to campus crime statistics -- although some in academe warn that the numbers might not be complete.

"This is a much more important issue than it was 20 years ago and, in terms of Sept. 11, even two years ago," said Tom Nelson, editor and publisher of the California-based Campus Safety Journal.

Before his daughter left for college, Mark Sklarow cautioned her about the risks to women on campuses and advised her to cover the top of beverage cups while attending parties to discourage tampering with a date-rape drug. Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Assn., said he has heard of more parents taking similar precautions.

During her daughter's college search last year, Lisa Treister of Miami consulted campus crime data posted on the Web site operated by Security On Campus -- a nonprofit advocacy group started by the family of Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student raped and murdered in her dormitory room in 1986.

"It wasn't the make-or-break decision, but we did check it, and I thought it was a pretty interesting Web site," she said. "People are looking at it, and people are definitely concerned about it."

Her daughter, Emily, settled on Boston University, an urban campus with tight security.

Pat Bosco, dean of student life at Kansas State University, said safety also has become a consumer question for rural schools, like his in Manhattan.

"We're seeing the perception of crime everywhere," he said.

By law, colleges and universities must address safety concerns by prominently displaying information about campus security measures on their Web sites. But with the issue gaining attention, the various means used to measure security -- especially the provisions enacted under the so-called "Clery Act" -- are coming under more scrutiny.

Shepherded through Congress by Security On Campus, the law requires schools receiving federal subsidies to report crime data each year to the U.S. Department of Education.

Although acknowledging the law's benefits, many officials worry that the system punishes schools that file accurate statistics to the database.

"There's almost an incentive not to report," Sklarow said.

One problem is that schools decide independently what constitutes on- and off-campus crime, Nelson said. Some report incidents within one block of campus; others report crimes that occur as far as three blocks away, he said.

Howard Clery III said Security On Campus is studying ways to make colleges more accountable. "They're interpreting the law in different ways, so we're looking to tighten that up," said Clery, brother of the slain Lehigh student.

Although overall national statistics on college crime have not been tabulated, Gerald Williamson, vice principal of student services at East Central University, a 4,300-student state school in Ada, Okla., says campus violence needs to be placed in perspective. "If you have any population contained within 10 acres, where you have 5,000 people a day passing through, there will be things that occur," Williamson said. "But probably the safest place you can be nationwide is on a college campus."

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