James Alan Fox
August 28, 2007
U.S. News & World Report, a perennial also-ran in the weekly news magazine competition, has surely found a niche as an authoritative resource for college-bound students. Its annual survey -- America's Best Colleges -- has even prompted institutions to strategize ways to upgrade their rankings.
Not to be outdone, Newsweek hit newsstands this month with a special edition on education that highlighted a new dimension to college choice: safety. Explicitly capitalizing on April's horrific mass murder at Virginia Tech, the magazine advises students and parents on how to tell whether a school is safe.
College officials from around the country report that security has become foremost among the questions raised by applicants and their parents during campus visits and orientation sessions. Parents want to know about procedures for campus lockdown -- the new catch phrase that emerged from the controversy over how Virginia Tech officials responded during the spring massacre.
After witnessing the horrors in Blacksburg, Va., it's understandable that parents watching their teenagers leave home for the first time would become even more protective. But emotions tend to cloud the facts, and the truth is, the risk on campus of murder in general -- and mass murder, in particular -- is so low that you almost need a course in college math to calibrate the odds.
Few campus incidents
From 2001 through 2005, just 76 homicides were reported on college campuses in the USA, based on a database of incidents assembled from the FBI, the Department of Education and various news sources. Leaving aside cases involving faculty, staff or other non-students as victims, the count of undergrads and grad students murdered at school numbered 43. That's fewer than 10 per year, on average. When compared with virtually any metropolitan area, a student's chances of dying by homicide actually decreases once he or she steps on campus. And of the homicides reported on campuses, the majority were acquaintance killings or drug deals gone bad.
Any life cut short is tragic, of course. In light of the more than 20 million college students in the USA, however, the chances of being murdered on campus are about as likely as being fatally struck by lightning.
The real dangers on campus lie elsewhere: Each year, more than 1,000 college students commit suicide; at least as many die in alcohol-related incidents such as binge drinking. Rather than focusing on these "not my son or daughter" concerns, many parents obsess about Virginia Tech-type shootings.
Articles such as the one in Newsweek only play to a parent's worst fears, and of course with every tragedy there is a business opportunity: Two dads in Massachusetts formed a security company to produce and market special backpacks lined with a bullet-deflecting shield. Even at $175 each, they are struggling to keep up with the back-to-school demand. And school safety consultant Bob Stuber sells instructional videos demonstrating how students can "outsmart a bullet" by running from side to side in a zigzag pattern in the event of a sniper attack.
Pressure to perform
For their part, colleges and universities are feeling pressure to invest in high-tech communications systems -- mass text messaging alerts and such. They're spending scarce resources on equipment that most likely will never be needed, rather than on computer technology and other educational resources. Little evidence exists that such technology would even be effective in the remote chance of a violent episode.
Besides being unnecessary and ineffective, these security measures may actually be counterproductive. Special backpacks, excessive attention to emergency response systems and the like serve as constant reminders of vulnerability, reinforcing the overblown image of students as targets.
This isn't to suggest that schools shouldn't have contingency plans or look for sensible ways to ensure a safe campus. But as with any tragedy such as the one at Virginia Tech, our society often embraces -- and even demands -- extreme responses to extreme and aberrational behavior. Such actions, in hindsight, aren't always prudent.
Choosing the right college may depend on balancing security and scholarship. Still, the smart strategy is to focus on the traditional selection criteria -- academic quality, range of majors and social life -- rather than simply security. For if safety becomes the top priority, then the only choice may be a degree online or no college at all.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, and co-author of The Will to Kill.