The Truth about Campus Crime

The Virginia Tech massacre of 32 people in 2007 and the murder of graduate student Annie Le at Yale in 2009 understandably made headlines. Publicized crimes like these cause people to question campus safety and force public officials and campus administrators to respond with action. What the media neglect to point out in the midst of these incidents, however, is how rare they are.

According to Department of Education Statistics, there were 69 total murders on college campuses nationwide over the two-year period from 2006 to 2008. If you consider the FBI’s national all-inclusive total for the same years, you will see that these represent a mere 0.14% of all murders, even with the Tech massacre. Despite this, fear of criminal activity abounds.

On April 5, 1986, a Lehigh University freshman, Jeanne Clery, was beaten, raped, and murdered in her dorm room by another Lehigh student. The student, characterized by the victim’s family as an alcohol and drug abuser, was able to enter Jeanne’s room with no problem due to three propped-open doors.

Stirred by this heinous act, her parents founded a non-profit organization in 1987 called Security on Campus, Inc. The efforts of this organization to promote awareness of criminal violence on college campuses eventually led to the passage of the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act in 1990. The act, amended five times since 1990 and known today simply as the Clery Act, has expanded federal regulation of crime reporting to college campuses and altered the standards by which we measure campus security.

The act requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on their campuses and, in certain circumstances, nearby. An institution must keep and report the most recent three years of crime statistics for four categories: on campus, in the institution’s residential facilities, in non-campus buildings (such as a downtown office building), or on public property on campus (such as public streets).

The 2010 amendment, in response to the Virginia Tech massacre, addresses hate crime reporting, law enforcement policy disclosure, and emergency preparedness policies on all campuses nationwide. The emergency email, text, and siren alert systems that colleges have implemented are the most noticeable results of this amendment.

Even so, the amendments do not change the principal focus of the Clery Act at its inception. The parents of Jeanne Clery believe that she died because of lack of information—“ because of what she didn’t know”—and that student “crime awareness can prevent campus victimization.” Although these beliefs remain unproven, they were the driving force behind Security on Campus, Inc. and its legislative lobbying. It’s time to press these claims against some solid facts.

Nationally, crime is decreasing and college campuses are the safest places in almost any community. As an example, Detroit, considered one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S., reported 306 murders and 17,818 burglaries in 2008. Wayne State University, located in the heart of Detroit, reported 0 murders and 45 burglaries on its campus. If the founders of the Clery Act are right, the relative safety on campus must be due to greater awareness of campus crime. 

But awareness, in fact, appears to be low. According to Chief Tom Younce of the North Carolina State University Police Department, crime statistics do not capture the interest of most college applicants or their parents. While speaking with students and parents at orientations during his 10 years with NCSU, he found that “no one is really paying any attention to it.”

If the “true picture of campus crime” is as “startling” and “horrifying” as the Security on Campus website claims, why are students not paying close attention? The answer is simple: There are few murders, robberies, or physical assaults on college campuses. 

The chart, using 2008 data, shows that the national totals for these crimes on college campuses never represent more than 0.44 percent of total crime. The statistics are hardly what I would call “horrifying” and only further corroborate the claim that college campuses are some of the safest places around.

Furthermore, analysis of Department of Education statistics for North Carolina reveals that a majority of crime on campuses remains victimless. Fifty-two percent of the 2,674 reported crimes on campuses in 2009 were liquor and drug law violations. Thirty-three percent of the remaining crimes were burglaries, leaving only 15 percent for violent crimes.

Although violent crimes make up a small percentage of total crime, there are some items worth noting. Warren Wilson College, with 29 rapes between 2008-2009, sits at the top, with 1.46 violent crimes occurring per 100 students. Brevard and then Chowan are next on the list, with rates of less than one violent crime per 100 students, displaying the scarcity of violent crime. Fifteen of the 55 schools experienced no violent crime on campus in 2009.

Although the Clery Act has improved reporting standards, these aggregate statistics are doing very little to raise awareness and prevent victimization. What they can do, however, is provide a solid performance measure for campus police departments to target problems.    

Campus police at NC State have used these statistics for several years now to promote problem- and community-oriented policing. For example, a “bait-bike” program, taken from the University of Washington, will be adopted in the future. Police will target high bicycle theft areas identified though crime stats. NC State has also purchased software to integrate its computer system with the local police department and to make crime maps available to the public.

Campus statistics may help the police department more than students and applicants, but a safe campus may be surrounded by not-so-safe city neighborhoods. Relying on campus statistics alone to put your mind at ease would be unwise. For example, the 2008 murder of UNC student body president Eve Carson does not appear in official UNC crime statistics, since the murder occurred on Hillcrest Circle, about a mile from campus.

As you can see in the chart above, only seven out of 55 schools have a higher crime rate than the city they are located within. (They are listed in bold.) Livingstone and St. Augustine’s top the list. In a few cases the disparities between campus rates and city rates are dramatic. UNC-Pembroke maintains a very low .27 crime rate, but the city of Pembroke has a crime rate of 5.97.

There are many ways for students and parents to stay informed. Most campus police department websites offer activity logs to show what is currently happening. There are also websites available to view crime mapping in cities across the country. Some of these are:,, and

Violent crime is not, of course, the only consideration. Safety-conscious students and parents may want to consider the Department of Education’s statistics on university referrals. When weapon, drugs, or alcohol violations occur, local and campus police departments and campus security departments can make referrals to the universities rather than arrests or citations.  The university can then handle the problems according to its own policies, typically by administering academic probations.

As displayed in the chart, some North Carolina schools, including UNC-Charlotte and UNC-Wilmington, have a lot of university referrals—1,030 referrals at Charlotte and 814 at Wilmington. This suggests that there is a lot of drug and alcohol activity on these campuses, but it also means that the schools are enforcing campus policies (rather than ignoring the violations altogether). The chart also shows that Elon and Warren Wilson have the highest rates of referrals per 100 students.

Finally, students can also check out what types of programs their campus police departments offer, such as engraving services for personal items to help prevent thefts and aid in recovery of stolen items. Many of these services are free and tend to be underutilized.

It would also be wise to take advantage of some of the programs implemented because of the Clery Act.  Emergency alert networks are available to students so that text messages can be sent directly to your phone in the event of an emergency. Not every campus currently offers this service, but a federally regulated Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), already piloted in Florida, will be implemented in 2012 to provide this service.

Crime has been steadily falling across the country so it isn’t time to lock the doors and bar the windows as some would have you believe; however, it never hurts to stay informed about what’s going on in your college community.