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Campus crime

Back-to-school fears

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment January 2, 2013 10:30 AM

With the holiday break ending, millions of youngsters will be returning to the classroom. Will they do so fearful that an incident like the Sandy Hook shooting might happen in their school? Will parents worry as they watch their children climb aboard the yellow school bus that they might not return safe and sound at the end of the day?

The recent massacre in Newtown, Conn. has put the issue of school safety center stage in the public and political discourse. Notwithstanding the fact that for school-aged children, the risk of serious violence while at school is significantly lower than at other times and at other places, the enormity of the carnage at the Sandy Hook compels us to think long and hard about school security.


The lesson from VA Tech's false alarm

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment August 4, 2011 05:00 PM

The Virginia Tech campus police acted responsibly when it launched this campus-wide alert after receiving a phone tip from three teenagers attending a summer program:

"Person with a gun reported near Dietrick. Stay inside. Secure doors. Emergency personnel responding. Call 911 for help."


Even though the three young witnesses to a man carrying what seemed to be a handgun covered by some type of cloth may have been mistaken, it was wise for campus authorities to err on the side of caution. Moreover, the University had been criticized and recently fined -- unfairly so -- for failing to respond sufficiently to the double homicide on the early morning of April 16, 2007, that turned out to be but the first wave of far a far worse rampage to come later that morning.

With a mandate from the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, colleges are encouraged act promptly in the face of a credible threat to the safety and well-being of its students or employees. Of course, credibility is the in eyes of the beholder, but better safe than sorry. After several hours of follow-up investigation with no confirmation of danger, the campus police lifted the warning. Of course, by then classes had been cancelled and folks had gone home.


School discipline: Well-meaning but mean-spirited

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment July 20, 2011 10:30 AM

A new and fairly rigorous study of discipline practices in Texas public schools has uncovered a disturbing level of over-response and unfairness, particularly when minority students are involved. Moreover, it is a pattern of punitiveness for which the Lonestar State is hardly alone. Several published studies from various school districts around the country have repeatedly documented the increased use of formal sanctions, specifically invoking the juvenile and criminal justice systems, when confronting adolescent behaviors that would in an earlier era have been handled informally in the principal’s office.

The string of school-based mass murders that took place between 1996 and 2001 became a national obsession, creating an unprecedented sense of urgency and alarm. By March 2001, following yet another multiple-victim shooting -- the venerable Dan Rather had declared school shootings to be an “epidemic.”

Of course, the level of media hype and public hysteria was well out of proportion with the actual risk. Fewer than 1% of murders of children and adolescents occur in school, where the average student spends nearly 20% of his or her waking hours during a calendar year. Despite the safer reality, school systems around the country reacted aggressively to “prevent another Columbine.” As a result, the majority of middle and high schoolers spend a large portion of their day in a locked building with armed guards, video surveillance, and random inspections of their possessions.


Probe academic record, not criminal record

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment June 20, 2011 09:15 AM

When a student at the MassBay Community College was arrested last winter for having a loaded semiautomatic weapon inside his backpack, we were all relieved that no one was harmed. But as more details surfaced indicating that the student had had a substantial criminal record, the relief turned to outrage. How could such a dangerous individual be admitted as a student?

As a long-time and consistent opponent of allowing guns on college campuses (with the exception of those issued to duly-sworn campus police), you might think I too would be outraged. You might think I'd join the vocal crowd, including Globe columnist Derrick Jackson and those at the Globe's Editorial Board, to insist that community colleges, like their four-year counterparts, probe applicants concerning their criminal pasts. Well, think again.


Breaking silence on campus sexual assault

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment April 29, 2011 09:00 AM

April is designated as "Sexual Assault Awareness Month," giving the Boston City Council—and Ayanna Pressley and Felix Arroyo, in particular—the opportunity to address the problem as it applies to college students and the schools in which they are enrolled. Given the more than 100,000 students attending colleges and universities in Boston, the issue is of special concern in this mecca for higher education.

It is also a significant personal issue for Councilor Pressley, who recently revealed that she was herself a sexual assault survivor years ago while attending one of the city's renowned educational institutions. The trauma from that event derailed her academic pursuits, but not her resolve. And for her courage and candor, she was praised—even many years after the fact—by Councilor Arroyo and others at last Tuesday's hearing on campus sexual assault prevention and reporting.

It is difficult to assess to any degree of certainty the prevalence of sexual assault among college students. The best and most often-cited estimate— that nearly 20 percent of college women are victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during her college years—is based on a survey at just two large public universities (one in the Midwest and one in South) in which 1,072 of 5,446 female respondents reported that they had been sexually assaulted. Whether or not these results can be generalized to other schools small as well as large, private as well as public, and in all areas of the country, the problem is undeniably serious.

We know very little about the scope of campus sexual assault because, unfortunately, so few victims feel comfortable coming forward to disclose the incident to the authorities. In fact, based on the same two-school prevalence study, only 5 percent of victims informed campus security or the police of what had happened to them.


The Columbine legacy - Still strong after all these years

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment April 20, 2011 12:00 AM

It hardly seems like a dozen years since the April 20, 1999 Columbine massacre in which Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris turned a Denver-suburban high school into their personal battle ground, killing 12 students and one teacher, before committing suicide. Despite the fact that today’s high school students are too young to recall the event and to have watched the horrible tragedy unfold as it was broadcasted live by TV news crews, the shooting continues to impact the way in which schools operate.

Educators across America have been compelled to invest large sums of money in security devices that are of questionable value, such as metal detectors that don’t deter and surveillance systems that don’t function. Meanwhile, they continue to trim budgets for the more fundamental needs, such as books and faculty.

And many schools across America still launch so-called “Columbine drills” to prepare their students for such a icatastrophe in the same way that an earlier generation of students was trained for a possible A-Bomb through regular air-raid simulations. There is little reason to believe that such lockdown drills do anything other than frighten and traumatize impressionable children. At the same time, several private entrepreneurs have developed personal safety equipment for students, including bullet-resistant backpacks and body shields.

In terms of today’s “best practice” security strategies, Columbine High School was fairly well-prepared even in advance of the shooting spree. It was equipped with a surveillance camera system, which apparently served no other role than to capture dark images of Klebold and Harris taking aim inside the school cafeteria. Columbine also employed an armed school resource officer, but he could do little to protect a sprawling campus that enrolled 1,400 students.


Guns on campus - More peril than protection

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment April 8, 2011 11:30 AM

The Arizona legislature passed a measure yesterday hat would force colleges and universities in the state to allow properly-licensed students and staff to carry firearms -- concealed or in open view -- while walking or driving through campus. If signed by Governor Janice Brewer, a supporter of gun-owner rights, Arizona will join Utah in redefining the notion of marksmanship on campus. It is no longer just about grades.

As compromise to opponents in the state senate, the Arizona bill was strategically narrowed from an earlier version that would also have permitted concealed firearms in dorms, classrooms and other campus buildings. Meanwhile, lawmakers in the similarly gun-lovin' state of Texas are continuing to deliberate on such a broad proposal.

The shifting tide in at least one corner of America is a victory for Students for Concealed Carry, a national organization formed after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. But many faculty see it as as the makings of a hostile workplace. How comfortable would instructors be in handing out poor grades to students who may be packing heat? No wonder that the faculties at all three state universities in Arizona overwhelmingly voiced opposition to the guns-on-campus bill. Apparently, their voice of reason and concern was trumped by those calling for unrestricted gun rights.


Virginia Tech - A fine that's not so fine

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment April 1, 2011 07:00 AM

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education threw the book at Virginia Tech. Actually, it was more like a pamphlet. Citing the school’s failure to alert the campus community in a timely fashion during the April 2007 massacre, the Feds imposed a fine of $55,000—the maximum penalty for each of two violations of the 1990 Clery Act.

In my mind, this penalty is absolutely unreasonable—unreasonably high, that is. Notwithstanding the unparalleled carnage that claimed the lives of 32 students and faculty, the university—and the campus police department, in particular—is not blameworthy. Rather, Virginia Tech’s initial response was appropriate for the circumstances as they appeared at the time, even though sadly inadequate in preventing the awful tragedy that ultimately unfolded.

A well-intention though misguided law, the Clery Act requires all colleges and universities that receive federal funds of any kind to comply with a set of onerous and overly broad crime reporting requirements. Embedded deep within the legislation is a paragraph stipulating that public safety officials must “immediately notify the campus community upon the confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff occurring on the campus.”

The debatable issue when judging Virginia Tech’s response surrounds whether university officials should reasonably have deemed the situation to be dangerous, prior to the point when the campus was besieged by a rampaging undergraduate. What makes the Virginia Tech massacre unique (besides its enormity, of course) is that it was actually two shooting sprees separated by a 2-plus hour hiatus. Nothing about the first wave of gunfire would have indicated that there would be a continuation


Backpacking heat -- Concealed weapons on campus

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment February 17, 2011 02:00 PM

A number of questions remains unanswered stemming from the arrest earlier this month of a student at MassBay Community College in Wellesley for having a loaded semi-automatic weapon in his backpack. School authorities are assessing their security preparedness, while the court investigates possible explanations for 18-year-old Darryl Dookhran's alleged violation of weapons laws. Could Dookhran have acted out of fear for his personal safety, as his attorney has suggested? Or, might his design have been something sinister?

Whatever clarity emerges over the weeks and months ahead, the MassBay episode connects to a much larger debate over the appropriate role of firearms on campus, particularly those concealed and carried for the purpose of protection.

In a recent post, I challenged recurrent proposals that would arm teachers and administrators in grades K-12 with more than just chalk. Whereas duly-sworn School Resource Officers (SROs) can and should be equipped with adequate firepower to protect the school population, teachers -- even if licensed to carry concealed weapons -- should leave their guns outside of school. Licensing requirements for citizens hardly compare to training requirements for law enforcement. Faculty are trained to educate, not execute.

The same pro-gun arguments, only louder, have been heard in response to shootings on college campuses, where much of the student population (as well as the staff) may be accomplished shooters. Ironically—and unfortunately, at least in the minds of some observers—at the time of the tragic Virginia Tech massacre, a bill was stalled in the Virginia General Assembly that would have permitted licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on the Blacksburg and other campuses in the state.


Marksmanship in schools - Letter grades and loaded guns

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment February 2, 2011 08:00 AM

Largely obscured amidst the coast-to-coast fixation on last month’s massacre in Tucson and the subsequent debate over gun restrictions vs. gun rights was the January 4th shooting at an Omaha high school that claimed two lives, including the gunman. Robert Butler, Jr., a student at Millard South High School, was apparently angry after having been lectured and suspended earlier in the day by the assistant principal over a New Year's Day prank on school grounds.

The 17-year-old senior was determined to have the last word, but let his gun do the talking. By the time the gun smoke cleared, Butler had fatally shot Assistant Principal Vicki Kasper, seriously wounded Principal Curtis Case, and taken his own life.

The Omaha shooting also sparked debate over guns. Within a few days of the incident, Nebraska State Sen. Mark Christensen filed legislation that would empower teachers and administrators to carry concealed weapons at school. “If you have a kid come in to shoot a teacher ... or other kids,” explained the lawmaker, “it’s best to have somebody that can take care of the situation.”


About the author

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He has written 18 books, including his newest, "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." More »

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