Fighting Campus Crime with Noisemakers and Information


I pull the pin on the small, black weapon I hold in my palm. Fifty feet away, a workman repairing an overhead light fixture totters on his tall ladder, almost falls, and rights himself at the last second. Women working in a nearby office rush into the reverberating hallway.

The three charcoal-suited young men surrounding me appear gratified. The high-tech security device I have just activated has proved to be a serious attention-getter, the decibels of sound emitted by the little instrument surely being, as its advertising claims, just a shade short of what it would take to split a human eardrum.

At $39.95, the noisemaker is one of the pricier items among the spate of such devices I get to "test" almost every day, as co-director of the National Campus Violence Prevention Center (CVPC) at Towson State University.

In the wake of our sixth annual National Conference on Campus Violence, held this past week in Baltimore, myriad vendors of protection equipment have already started vying for next year's exhibition space. They also hope for the CVPC "seal of approval," based on standards we are now developing.

I can't really test the devices now in any scientific sense. But I know what I like, and my two current favorites are the little black noisemaker -- so sleek, so simple, so loud -- and its opposite, an under-ten-dollar gizmo that resembles a purse-size container of hair spray, except that it emits a nasty screech instead of goo.

The police chief at Towson State, Stephen Murphy, tells me I should recommend any of the noisemakers -- tested or not -- over other defense devices, such as mace and red-pepper sprays, that can easily be turned into assault weapons.

And I do, especially when parents phone CVPC to ask whether their children should come to campus armed. By arms, most of the callers mean mace or noise alarms. But a few mean handguns.

All recent research, however, including a 60,000-student national survey conducted in 1990 by CVPC, shows 80 percent of campus crime is perpetrated on students by fellow students. In light of this, an armed student body could mean campus violence on an unprecedented scale.

Several inventors have approached CVPC with devices that hook up electronically to campus police. George Washington University, a private school located in heart of Washington, D.C., is considering equipping each of its thousands of students with voice-activated monitors. Of course, the cost of such equipment is overwhelming, especially given the tight budgets on most campuses.

One reason for the increased demand for security devices is the recent federal campus crime legislation, which went into effect last September. This requires all colleges and universities receiving any federal funds (which means virtually all of them) to publish campus crime statistics each year, beginning this coming September.

The great benefit of this law is that no institution -- or student or parents -- can ever again imagine that a campus is a crime-free ivory tower. A college that doesn't have a variety of strong programs for safety, crime prevention and victim assistance will be clearly revealed as a college where parents will hesitate to send their children.

There won't be many colleges like that. Working to assure campus safety has already become a priority in institutions across the country.

Colleges now know, and parents and students will be able to see, that the mere appearance of safety -- perhaps a serene rural setting -- is no assurance of the absence of crime. An annual survey conducted by Towson State with 400 cooperating institutions showed a remarkable similarity in crime statistics among urban, suburban and rural campuses.

For example, in a recent conversation, an administrator at an urban campus of campus of Rutgers University apologized for its car theft statistics. "The city of Newark is one of the car theft capitals of the East Coast," he said. But our survey shows that the car theft statistics at Rutgers-Newark, compared with hundreds of other campuses, are just about average. With the new federal law, everyone will have access to such information.

But there is danger if the data required by the law are not examined knowledgeably. For several reasons, it is a bad idea to compare the numbers to see which colleges are "safer." One reason is that the most feared crimes, notably murder, occur randomly and unpredictably. The mass murder at University of Montreal, the killings at Yale and the serial murders at University of Florida two years ago were the result of individual psychosis, not institutional failure, and could have happened anywhere.

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