Violent crime on college campuses has taken a disturbing jump, forcing many schools to make safety a concern along with grade inflation and the food in dining halls.
Even before a recent spate of shootings, new statistics showed that the murder rate on college campuses almost doubled in 2000. Burglary and drug arrests were up as well.
Even so, the 20 people killed that year represented a level close to the annual average for the past decade. The number was accentuated by a low murder rate in 1999 - 11.
Although the latest figures are a year old, they represent some of the most comprehensive statistics ever released on crime on American colleges and universities. They come at a time when campus safety has resurfaced as a national concern.
Within the past week, shootings on two campuses have left five dead - three at Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., and two in a murder-suicide at Broward Community College near Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"People forget that until 10 years ago people didn't think crime happened on college campuses - an image that schools certainly wanted to project," says S. Daniel Carter of Security on Campus, a nonprofit group that promotes university safety.
The most recent statistics on campus crime, released Friday, come from the US Department of Education (DOE). Though figures for 2001 won't be out until next January, the 2000 numbers give a sharper picture of violence on college greens and in dorms - and offer administrators and parents reason for both concern and consolation.
The overriding observation from the latest numbers might be how safe schools remain. Despite the increase in the homicide rate, authorities point out that there were about .14 on-campus murders per 100,000 students compared with a murder rate in the general population of about 5.5 per 100,000 people.
"One murder is too many, but looked at in comparison to national crime data, college campuses are relatively safe places," says David Bergeron, chief of policy and budget development at DOE's office of post-secondary education.
While murders loom large, other categories of campus crime are raising concern, too. Burglary, for instance, rose about 3 percent and arson was up 9 percent between 1999 and 2000. Liquor arrests grew 4 percent while drug arrests grew 10 percent.
Each year, colleges are required to release statistics on crime as a result of the Clery Act, passed by Congress 11 years ago. Until recently, however, the data was not collected and disseminated by the federal government.
Changes to the reporting act in 1998 required DOE to start doing so in 2000. Mr. Bergeron says 6,270 institutions reported their data this year (available on the department's website at www.ope.ed.gov/security).
Some of this year's biggest increases may not be due to worsening crime, but simply better reporting and tougher enforcement on campus. That's probably the case, for instance, with liquor and drug arrests, according to Mr. Carter.
Yet private, nonprofit four-year schools - normally considered sanctuaries of security - do have some reasons for concern.
Take robberies and burglaries. Even though the increase and overall number of them was small, the jump was sharper at private four-year schools.
Robberies on those campuses grew from 501 in 1998 to 581 in 2000 - a 16 percent increase. Burglaries went up a similar amount.
"The overall numbers are small," says Mr. Bergeron. "But when we looked at it year after year it raised concerns that students at those institutions may be being identified for their potential as easy money."
Assaults have been rising at private schools as well. While the number of aggravated assaults at all institutions dropped about 5 percent, private four-year schools saw an 8 percent increase.
Still, there was some good news in all the numbers. Manslaughter and forcible sex offenses were about the same or down slightly from the year before.
All categories of hate crimes were mostly unchanged and at fairly low levels. Illegal weapons possession arrests dropped about 16 percent, and auto theft fell as well.
Many of these numbers, however, remain difficult to verify. Carter, for instance, calls the sex-offense figures, which have remained steady since 1998, "ridiculously low" when compared with private victimization studies.
"We're still working on getting accurate, stabilized crime statistics," he says. "This is the second year ever for having them collected by the federal government. We've seen some dramatic improvements, but it's still somewhat early."
In a bid to prevent bad publicity, schools still play down crimes by disregarding reports, miscoding files, or even refusing to maintain a public crime log, Carter and others say. Forcible sex offenses, for instance, are sensitive and still underreported - particularly at smaller schools, according to Carter.
By contrast, larger state universities seem to be reporting more consistently in the past. "Most four-year state universities are not having the same types of shenanigans," he says.