Erin Bowen

It’s not solely about walking home alone late at night. It’s not simply isolated acts of violence. It’s not only stolen laptops and missing iPhones. It’s not about extra locks on the door or placing security cameras at every turn. When it comes to campus safety, pinpointing exact problems and writing up the magic prescription is not always possible.

For a campus nestled in southwestern Ohio with approximately 16,000 students, Miami University’s biggest challenge concerning campus safety may be shedding the feeling of invincibility.

To Richard Nault, vice president of student affairs, convincing students to be concerned about safety is an ominous challenge.

“I think when people are 19, 20, 21 (years old), there is a sense of invincibility,” Nault said. “At Miami, we are in a small town that is very idyllic.”

Susan Mosley-Howard, associate vice president and dean of students, echoed Nault’s sentiments, saying that a perceived sense of safety is a double-edged sword for Miami’s administration.

“I think students feel safe at Miami,” Mosley-Howard said. “Generally, this is a safe place. We can be lulled into thinking that we don’t have to take normal precautions.”

Measuring up

In wake of the near one-year anniversary of the tragedy at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the losses at Northern Illinois University from the February shooting, scrutiny has been placed on colleges and universities to examine their campus safety and security policies.

Nault said nearly every college campus across the country is working to improve safety protocol.

“Both instances (VA Tech and NIU) were so tragic and horrific,” Nault said. “All campuses are second guessing, asking ‘Are we doing enough?'”

A February 2008 Reader’s Digest Campus Safety Survey evaluated 135 top colleges and universities based on 19 variables concerning safety and security measures, including the number of students, percentage of dorm room with self-locking doors, full time security, smoke detectors and other emergency prevention programs. Each school was given a ranking and a grade of A, B or C.

Out of 135 universities, Miami’s Oxford campus placed 104th with a C grade. The survey reported that zero percent of Miami students live in a dorm with a security camera or an attendant although 100 percent of dorms have full-time security and doors with peepholes or chains. Additionally, the survey reported that blue light phones protect 35 percent of campus, and a partial emergency lock-down plan is in place.

When comparing Miami to other schools, Mosley-Howard was optimistic despite the Reader’s Digest ranking.

“I think we are probably consistent with what other universities are doing and how they are approaching (campus safety),” Mosley-Howard said.

Mosley-Howard said Miami recently participated in a Webinar, an online seminar hosted by the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administration, which linked multiple universities together to compare strategies and tactics for improving safety. According to Mosley-Howard, university communications, business affairs offices and MUPD participated in the seminar.

She said the seminar showed that Miami’s current safety programs were in line with several other universities.

As Chief of the Miami University Police Department (MUPD), John McCandless said recent university efforts to improve safety and security have made the police force more prepared. McCandless said MUPD has worked to improve security concerns especially in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, but even before that incident occurred.

With 41 full time staff members, McCandless said MUPD is both larger than the Oxford Police Department (OPD) and is nationally considered to be a medium sized force, according to FBI standards.

If faced with an emergency situation, McCandless said he is more than confident with his staff.

“I have no doubt we would respond appropriately with help from other forces,” McCandless said, citing good relations with the OPD and the Butler County Sheriff Department.

The new addition of e2campus Emergency Text Messaging System is another safety feature that McCandless said bolsters MUPD’s already solid safety plan.

Yet Nault expressed surprise at the amount of students who enrolled in the emergency system.

“I was astonished,” Nault said. “Only 4,000 to 5,000 students signed up when I thought 15,000 would sign up. Students don’t seem to think it will happen here (or) happen to them.”

Both sophomore Morgan Buckey and first-year Kaitlyn Jones said they believe than an event similar to those at VA Tech and NIU could happen at Miami.

“I think they can happen anywhere but there isn’t a lot that the common student can do daily to prevent it,” Jones said.

Nault said teaching people how to react in emergency situations is complex.

“It’s a very complicated process,” Nault said. “We have to think, ‘How do we coach people in those instances?’ For us, it’s how to do that in a meaningful way.”

Nault said a recent focus on the administration has been job training.

“One thing we are working on is better job training for students, faculty and staff should an emergency occur-what defensive steps to take,” Nault said.

McCandless said preventative programs would be effective instead of simply installing more security devices.

“Part of the dilemma is that there is cost to everything,” McCandless said. “I think the fact that Miami has card access in residence halls is a big step. Just to get people to think of safety as a partnership is the goal. It’s not just the police’s responsibility but the people’s too.”

Mosley-Howard said Miami students are exposed to campus safety programs from the very beginning at first-year orientation.

“During orientation we spend quite a bit of time talking about health, wellness and safety,” Mosley-Howard said. “It’s an effective program at the beginning to heighten awareness about safety.”

First-year Julia McKay and Jones, however, were in agreement that the first-year orientation program did little to make them feel more secure on campus.

After orientation, Mosley-Howard said the awareness continues through residence hall tornado and fire drill and general talks about keeping safe.

Staying safe

From a student perspective, sophomore Seth Philip said he believes Miami’s campus can exude a false sense of security.

“In a sense, yes, when you walk around campus, crime is usually the last thing on your mind,” Philip said.

Jones said she always feels safe on campus, even when walking alone.

“I don’t feel nervous ever walking by myself,” Jones said.

McCandless said that while crime does occur on campus, the community is generally a safe place.

“I always have believed and still believe that Miami and Oxford are very safe communities,” McCandless said. “Certainly, both are not immune from crime.”

In an October 2007 survey conducted by MUPD and HAWKS peer health educators, 97 percent of students ranked their feeling of safety between a 7-10, with 10 being extremely safe. Eighty-two percent of students said they would report suspicious activity.

Statistically, on-campus crime reports are low at Miami University. According to the Campus Security Act Reporting for the Oxford campus, Miami experienced zero instances of murder, non-negligent manslaughter, negligent manslaughter, robberies or hate crimes for 2006.

A total of four forcible sexual offenses occurred on campus in 2006 along with six instances of aggravated assault, six cases of arson, one motor vehicle theft and 33 reports of burglary.

In comparison, the Ohio State University reported 329 burglaries, 53 forcible sexual offenses, and 19 motor vehicle thefts in 2006. For the same year, Xavier University reported 14 burglaries and three forcible sex offenses.

Concerning substance violations, 810 li
quor law citations were issued on Xavier’s campus, 670 at Ohio State, and 137 at Miami in 2006. Xavier’s campus saw 48 drug abuse violations in 2006, while both Ohio State and Miami reported 47 for the same year.

To eliminate the crime that does occur on Miami’s campus, McCandless said that if students locked their doors and didn’t leave valuables like computers unattended, the statistics would decrease dramatically.

“We don’t ever blame the victims, but these things would reduce those crimes,” McCandless said.

Philip said that while Miami’s campus may experience crime, most of the incidents are not physically dangerous.

“It seems that this year there has been a higher than expected amount of crime,” Philip said. “I don’t think they have been major crimes.”

Philip, like other students, may think there has been an increase in crimes this year because of an increased amount of campus crime alerts issued. 14 campus crime alerts have been issued this academic year as opposed to seven issued during the same time frame last year.

The increase may be attributed to the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act which caused Miami officials to expand the criteria for campus crime alerts to include burglaries that occur even when the victims are not home.

The Clery act dictates that campus crime alerts provide timely warning if a current or ongoing threat faces students in addition to universities proving current crime statistics for the past three years.

Overall, Philip, who lives on-campus, said he feels safe.

Miami residence halls are locked 24 hours a day and require I.D. cards to enter. Emergency phones are located around campus and the MUPD patrols the campus at all hours by car, bike and foot.

“I believe that they do a fine job of keeping us safe,” Philip said.

Next year, Philip will be living off-campus but said his feeling of security will not be affected much.

“As a whole, I will feel less secure (off-campus) in the sense of my personal belongings, but I will not feel any less safe from a physical standpoint,” Philip said.

Buckey agreed, saying that she felt on-campus dorms were much safer than off-campus living arrangements.

Mosley-Howard also emphasized that implementing simple safety habits could prevent much of campus crime.

“Somehow on a college campus, we lose a little common sense,” Mosley-Howard said. “Students may not lock doors. I ask students, ‘If you were traveling in a hotel, would you lock your door? Then why not here?’ It’s a challenge because we do feel safe, but I’m also grateful that we are relatively safe. We are a learning community, so we want to feel safe. It both helps and it hurts.”

Keeping perspective

While Nault, McCandless and Mosley-Howard admit that Miami is not immune to tragedy and events of violence, all three emphasized the need to keep campus specific crime in perspective.

McCandless said he is focused on combating safety issues due to excessive alcohol consumption and suicide.

“We can’t take our eye off the ball,” McCandless said. “We lose more students to alcohol and suicide-about 2,500 annually.”

Nault supported McCandless’ concern about alcohol related hazards.

“The most serious incidences (on campus) are related to excessive use of alcohol,” Nault said. “Students get into a condition after two o’clock and certain things happen.”

Mosley-Howard supported these claims, especially in comparison to school shootings.

“All stats bear out that we have more cases of over-consumption of alcohol, sexual assault and physical assault than events connected to those at Virginia Tech or NIU,” Mosley-Howard said.

To McCandless, conversation about possible violent acts is good but should not be the only safety focus.

“We can think about Virginia Tech, but our students are in more danger of alcohol and suicide than active shooter,” McCandless said. “We have to think of everything.”

Mosley-Howard said she wished she knew of a way to ensure all students were safe.

“If I had the magic solution to get students to follow through basic things like locking the door, walking together, not over consuming alcohol, the simplest solution may be the hardest,” Moseley-Howard said. “Sometimes it has to be a cultural shift.”

For Miami, Nault said a sense of reality and awareness will be the university’s best weapon.

“We’re fortunate to be a small community where students and faculty are well-protected,” Nault said. “Still, tragedies could happen here. We’re not inside a bubble. All you can do is be prepared and ready.”