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SECTION ONE: DEFINITION OF THE NATIONAL/MASSACHUSETTS LANDSCAPE

Overview

In this section, we present statistics on the incidence of violent crime on college campuses both nationally and here in Massachusetts. From these figures, we see that, overall, college campuses are quite safe. However, the threat of violence is very real, and it is imperative that colleges and universities expand their resources in an effort to prevent and prepare for such violence if it occurs.

National landscape

The recent tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University have made us all too aware of the potential for violence on our college campuses, and of heightened potential for contagion. However, it is important to maintain perspective on the actual level of risk. Based upon information from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program and the U.S. Department of Education’s records mandated by the Clery Act, as well as information provided by news coverage, there were 76 homicides reported on college campuses nationwide between 2001 and 2005. Leaving aside cases involving faculty, staff or other non-students as victims, the count of undergraduates and graduate students murdered at school numbered 51, an average of about 10 per year. And of these homicides, as shown in Table 1, the majority involved acquaintance killings or drug deals gone bad, not rampaging shooters.

Of course, issues of violence and violence prevention extend well beyond the few widely-publicized crimes that form the tip of a larger iceberg. But even in the broader context of campus violence, the incidence of violence at college is rather low, as shown in Table 2, and the risk of serious victimization is typically far lower than the areas adjacent to most campuses. College law enforcement agencies reported an average of only 7 serious violent crimes per school in 2004 — 2 robberies, 2 forcible rapes, and 3 aggravated assaults. However, certain violent crimes — particularly rape — tend to be underreported. Therefore, we can assume that these statistics for violent crime on college campuses are an underestimate of reality.

Table 1: Patterns of Campus Homicides in the United States, 2001-2005

Number of homicides = 76
Characteristic Percent
Weapon
Gun 52.2%
Knife 11.6%
Personal 21.7%
Other 14.5%
Sex of Victim
Male 61.3%
Female 38.7%
Victim Role
Student 57.3%
Faculty 9.3%
Staff 9.3%
Child 5.3%
Other 18.7%
Sex of Offender
Male 90.8%
Female 9.2%
Offender Role
Student 35.5%
Former student 5.3%
Outsider 32.2%
Undetermined 27.0%
Victim/Offender Relationship
Partner 12.5%
Friend 28.3%
Acquaintance 6.6%
Stranger 27.6%
Undetermined 25.0%
Source: Homicide reports drawn from the U.S. Dept. of Education, FBI Uniform Crime Reports and newspaper archives

Table 2: Average Number of Serious Violent Crimes Reported by Campus Law Enforcement Agencies in the United States, 2004

Type of campus Size of campus # of Homicides # of Forcible Rapes # of Robberies # of Aggravated Assaults Total
Public and Private Schools All < 0.5

2

2

3

7

Public Schools All < 0.5 2 2 3 7
15,000
or more
< 0.5 3 4 6 12
10,000–
14,999
< 0.5 2 1 2 5
5,000–
9,999

0

1

1

2

4

2,500–
4,999
0 1 1 1 3
Private Schools All < 0.5

2

2 2 7
15,000
or more
< 0.5 7 11 7 25
10,000–
14,999

0 4 5 4 12
5,000–
9,999
< 0.5 2 2 3 7
2,500–
4,999
< 0.5 1 1 1 3
Sources: U.S. Dept. of Education, Bureau of Justice Statistics, and FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

Perhaps the most striking fact pattern among campus shootings is the disproportionate involvement of graduate students as perpetrators. Of the 13 fatal mass shootings in the United States since 1990, shown in Table 3, eight were committed by current or former graduate, law, or medical students, compared to three by undergraduates and two by outsiders. Thus, graduate students should be a particular concern for public universities and to a lesser extent for state colleges. Unlike undergraduates, graduate students, including law students and medical students, often lack balance in their personal lives (that is, academic work to the exclusion of other interests). No longer supported financially by parents, they experience great pressure to juggle assistantship activities or outside employment with coursework and thesis research, let alone attending to social networks. At some point, their entire lifestyle and sense of worth may revolve around academic achievement. Moreover, their personal investment in reaching a successful outcome can be viewed as a virtual life-or-death matter. This perception can be intensified for foreign graduate students from certain cultures where failure is seen as shame on the entire family. Foreign students also experience additional pressures because the academic visas allowing them to remain in this country are often dependent upon their continued student status.

For all of these reasons, it is important that graduate admissions committees look beyond grades and test scores to discern evidence of possible academic or disciplinary problems in the backgrounds of recruits. A record of attendance at multiple institutions without completing a degree, for example, may warrant inquiry into the reasons for such transiency. In addition, faculty advisors and academic standing committees should be wary of retaining a marginal student when the prospects for degree completion begin to appear remote.

Compounding the problem is the fact that faculty mentors, the gatekeepers to success, may be unaware of the pressures placed upon their students. At the extreme, some faculty members may even maintain an oppressive relationship with graduate students, perhaps perpetuating a power imbalance they themselves suffered in graduate school. Regrettably, not all faculty members are sensitive to the enormous and often unrestrained power they have over students.

Table 3: Shootings Involving Multiple Fatalities on College Campuses in the United States, 1990 to Present

Date School Shooter, Age Role at School
November 1, 1991 University of Iowa Gang Lu, 28 Graduate student
December 14, 1992 Simon’s Rock College Wayne Lo, 18 Undergraduate student
January 26, 1995 University of North Carolina Wendell Williamson, 26 Former law student
August 15, 1996 San Diego State University Frederick Davidson, 36 Graduate student
June 28, 2000 University of Washington Jan Chen, 42 Medical student
August 28, 2000 University of Arkansas James Easton Kelly, 36 Former graduate student
May 17, 2001 Pacific Lutheran University Donald Cowan, 55 None
January 16, 2002 Appalachian School of Law Peter Odighizuwa, 42 Former law student
October 28, 2002 University of Arizona Robert Flores, 40 Graduate student
September 2, 2006 Shepherd University Douglas Pennington, 49 Parent of students
April 16, 2007 Virginia Tech Seung-Hui Cho, 23 Undergraduate student
February 8, 2008 Louisiana Tech Latina Williams, 23 Undergraduate student
February 14, 2008 Northern Illinois University Steven Kazmierczak, 27 Former graduate student

Massachusetts landscape

In order to gauge the extent of violence that takes place at Massachusetts institutions of higher education, we requested crime data for the years 2000 through 2007 from all public colleges and universities. We received data, in varying formats and levels of detail, from nearly half the schools, including the flagship campus in Amherst. The following results are based on these crime data, and are not necessarily representative of all public colleges and universities in Massachusetts.

As shown in Table 4, the schools reported a total of 384 violent offenses from 2000 to 2007, including 1 homicide, 73 forcible rapes, 55 robberies, and 255 aggravated assaults, with no particular upward or downward trend during this time period.

Table 4: Violent Offenses Reported at Selected Public Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, 2000-2007

Year
Homicide
Forcible Rape
Robbery
Aggravated Assault
Total
# % # % # % # % # %
2000 0 0% 9 20% 4 9% 32 71% 45 100%
2001 0 0% 12 21% 10 18% 34 61% 56 100%
2002 1 2% 15 35% 10 23% 17 40% 43 100%
2003 0 0% 9 18% 7 14% 35 69% 51 100%
2004 0 0% 9 18% 5 10% 36 72% 50 100%
2005 0 0% 6 11% 9 17% 39 72% 54 100%
2006 0 0% 4 10% 4 10% 31 79% 39 100%
2007 0 0% 9 19% 6 13% 31 68% 46 100%
2000 to 2007 1 0% 73 19% 55 14% 255 66% 384 100%

In addition to these crime counts, we obtained detailed offense information for nearly all of the violent episodes. We found that over half the episodes occurred inside a dormitory, and over one-third outdoors. Very few occurred in classrooms or offices on campus. Since most incidents tended to fall toward the less severe end of the violent crime spectrum, most of the victims were not injured physically, and a majority of the remaining victims received only minor injury. In part, this resulted from the fact that a gun or knife was used in about one of every five of the cases.

While robberies were often committed by strangers, at least three quarters of the rapes and assaults involved friends or roommates as perpetrators. Most of the incidents — specifically the assaults — were precipitated by arguments. Furthermore, nearly a quarter of the offenses occurred between midnight and 2 a.m., and over half occurred between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Time of Day Distribution for Violent Offenses at Massachusetts Public Colleges and Universities

Time of Day Distribution for Violent Offenses at Massachusetts Public Colleges and Universities. Shows that nearly a quarter of the offenses occurred between midnight and 2 a.m., and over half occurred between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.

Over 60 percent of the victims and about 90 percent of the perpetrators were male. In terms of race, about three-quarters of both victims and offenders were Caucasian, although these distributions are particularly dependent of the demographic composition of the reporting schools’ student populations. Finally, age of victim and offender both tended to match the typical age-range of college students, with an average of just over 21 years-old, although both distributions contained a fair number of older individuals, reflecting non-students as victims or perpetrators.

Overall, the type, prevalence, and severity of violence reflected in these data do not rise to the level that occurred in recent high-profile shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University. Moreover, the tendency is toward argument-related assaults between individuals who know each other with relatively limited or no physical injury resulting from the altercation.

Conclusion about incidence and pattern of violence

Overall, college and university campuses — both nationally and in Massachusetts — are quite safe. We must not, however, become complacent and ignore the potential for violence, especially shootings. When such incidents of extreme violence occur, they receive intense and long-lasting media focus. This attention produces a contagion effect — when others identify with the perpetrators, rather than with the victims and their families, increasing the likelihood of copycat violence.

Even though Massachusetts public colleges and universities have not witnessed the kind of horrific episode for which many of the recommendations contained in this report are designed, the potential does exist. It is critical that colleges and universities maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of available resources. They must do everything in their power to prevent and prepare for such extreme forms of violence, as well as the more common forms of violence that students, faculty, and staff face on a more regular basis. For this reason, the recommendations in this report are intended to help decrease all types of violence on campus, not just the most extreme and highly visible forms. While there can never be an iron-clad guarantee against the occurrence of an episode of serious violence, these steps should at least enhance the safety and well-being of the entire campus community.

>>Next Section: II. Previously Established Best Practices for Campus Safety and Violence Prevention

 

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