June 7, 2014

How safe are our colleges? Statistics show level of campus violence in region

A 21-year-old female student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville was visibly shaking as she told a campus police officer how she was robbed while walking on the bike trail.

"I was by the garden building when I heard something and started to turn around," she said in her statement to police. "I felt something pointy in my back and an arm went around my neck."

The assailant asked for the victim's wallet, which she didn't have on her. After finding some bills and loose change in her pocket, the suspect demanded her ring, which she didn't want to give him. The man then shoved her and hit her in the face. She gave up her ring and ran off.

Armed robberies such as this one that occurred in January 2013 are rare, according to crime statistics compiled by the Belleville News-Democrat.

The details of the armed robbery were outlined in a police report obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The victim's name was redacted from the report, and the case remains open.

The topic of college student safety -- especially for female students -- has been in the national spotlight. Earlier this year, the National Institute of Justice released statistics showing one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college.

Locally, it's a different story.

Over the past three and a half years, SIUE police investigated a total of 23 violent crimes:

* eight criminal sexual assaults,

* four armed robberies,

* three aggravated assaults,

* five aggravated batteries,

* two assaults,

* one kidnapping or unlawful restraint.

The most recent reported armed robbery at SIUE occurred in April, and three suspects, who knew their victim, have been charged in connection with that crime.

"I feel it's a safe campus," said SIUE Police Chief Kevin Schmoll. "We were recently named the ninth-safest campus in the country."

SIUE, which serves 13,850 students, was listed ninth in the Top 60 Safest Colleges in America compiled by University Primetime News.

Schmoll said SIUE's crime statistics are lower than other universities of similar size.

By comparison, Western Illinois University in Macomb, which has 13,600 students, had 11 forced-sex offenses by acquaintances and two forced-sex offenses by strangers in 2012, and eight forced-sex offenses by acquaintances in 2011, according to the university's campus crime reports, the latest statistics available.

Nationally, news of shootings and violence on college campuses has been reported in recent years.

A gunman killed one person and injured three others when he opened fire at Seattle Pacific University on Thursday.

A 22-year-old man identified by police as Elliot Rodger went on a rampage near the University of California, Santa Barbara, on May 27. He killed six people before fatally shooting himself.

Six people, including the gunman, died after he opened fire in a lecture hall in 2008 at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. A shooting rampage at Virginia Tech in 2007 left 32 dead and 17 others injured.

Deadly shootings are widely reported. However, sexual assaults on college campuses may go unreported, according to experts.

Legal expert Roger Canaff, who is based in New York, said sexual violence often is a "deeply unreported crime. Individuals who experience it usually blame themselves," he said.

Canaff, a current board member for the nonprofit organization End Violence Against Women International, said the rate of reporting is believed to be "very low" for sexual crimes.

In an effort to better protect students from sexual violence and harassment, an amendment to the Clery Act known as the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act or SaVE Act was approved in 2013 and will go into effect this Oct. 1. It expands the types of crimes to be reported in annual campus crime statistics, including incidents of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, rape and stalking.

"I think things like the SaVE Act are steps in the right direction," Canaff said. "It's a good effort, but there's still quite a bit more work to do."

Sometimes college officials, he said, may be hesitant to investigate or help a victim, because they are more interested in protecting their institution or their brand. So reports aren't taken.

"In most places it's not that the incidents aren't happening," he said, "it's that most people don't feel comfortable reporting it."

Fewer violent crimes occurred at Southwestern Illinois College than at SIUE, even though more students attend the community college -- 22,729 students on three campuses in Belleville, Granite City and Red Bud. However, SWIC students do not live on campus.

At SWIC, the on-campus police department investigated eight major crimes in the last three years:

* four aggravated batteries,

* three aggravated assaults,

* one criminal sexual assault, which later turned out to be a false report.

In one case, a former SWIC student attempted to cut campus police officer Michael Stark in the stomach with a knife in April 2012. According to a police report, the suspect, David A. Buehler Jr., of Cahokia, came up to Stark, asked whether he was a police officer and pulled a knife on him. Buehler was intoxicated at the time, the report states. Stark reached for his gun in fear for his life and the suspect threw his knife to the ground. Buehler was charged with aggravated assault and sentenced to probation.

SWIC Public Safety Director Mark Green said SWIC's public safety record at all three campuses speaks for itself.

"Of the thousands of service calls to SWIC public safety since 2011, there were only a handful of significant events, each of which was resolved without incident by SWIC Public Safety, typically in cooperation with other regional law enforcement agencies," he said.

"Our public-safety record is a direct reflection of the community policing approach we take that relies on timely communication by us to ensure awareness among and likely assistance from our students and employees."

Most current and former students at SIUE and SWIC said they feel the campuses are safe.

"I have always felt very safe and I'm sure most of the students at SWIC feel the same way," said SWIC student trustee Nick Raftopoulos, 20, of Granite City. "Public safety is doing a great job at keeping my campus safe and the rest of the campuses safe."

Raftopoulos said he often sees police officers patrolling the campus all hours of the day. He attends the Sam Wolf Granite City Campus.

Former SWIC student Mikel Smith, 31, of Marissa, said she attended night classes at SWIC-Belleville last summer.

"I felt very safe during class and walking out to my car after class was let out," she said. "It is well lit and I felt comfortable knowing that the campus security was driving around the parking lot."

SIUE student Tucker Biesenthal, 23, said, he's been on campus for five years. "There's only a few incidents (of crime) a year that we are notified of," he said.

Friends Jasmine Howell and Dani Selan said neither have experienced any type of crime at SIUE.

"I feel pretty safe," said Howell, a 21-year-old student who lives near campus. "I feel like there's cops around."

"I personally think it's pretty safe," said Selan, a 20-year-old student who lives off-campus in Edwardsville. "I walk around campus alone, and I feel perfectly fine."

SIUE junior Nicole Holmes, 21, of Edwardsville, said she feels safe on campus as well and has never witnessed a crime at SIUE.

Holmes is president of the SIUE feminist organization Making Waves, which promotes feminist ideals including violence prevention. The organization hosts events every April in recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Private universities

Unlike public institutions such as SWIC and SIUE, private universities like Lindenwood University-Belleville and McKendree University in Lebanon are not required to release crime information under the Freedom of Information Act.

However, all U.S. colleges and universities must report crime statistics annually under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or Clery Act.

According to these statistics, McKendree, which serves 1,500 students, had two forcible sex offenses in 2013 -- one that occurred on campus and another that occurred off campus involving a McKendree student. McKendree also had two forcible sex offenses in 2012, and none in 2011.

No aggravated assaults were reported at McKendree in 2013 or 2012, while one occurred at a residential facility in 2011, according to the crime statistics.

The Lebanon Police Department investigated an aggravated battery, a home invasion and a criminal sexual assault involving McKendree students in 2011.

"I think it's one of the premier campuses as far as safety is concerned," said Ran Foggs, director of public safety at McKendree University. "I think, historically, it's one of the safest places you can be, because of the location -- the rural atmosphere. And the fact we have enough officers to promote high visibility. There's a certain amount of crime deterrent when you see ... we're well staffed."

College student Britani Beasley, 21, feels McKendree is a safe campus.

"No matter where I am at on campus I feel like I can call either a faculty member, another student, resident assistant or public safety and someone will be there immediately," Beasley said. "Even the president, Dr. (James) Dennis, would be willing to help wherever needed. This campus has such a personal feel that anyone would be willing to drop anything to help out a fellow Bearcat."

First-year college student Brice Miller, 18, who lives on campus, said safety is put in the forefront of students' minds when they first arrive at McKendree as the public safety department does a presentation at the new student orientation. He said he's never noticed a problem on campus.

However, a female student at McKendree, who didn't want to be identified, described campus safety officers as a "joke."

"How efficient are officers when they ride around campus together in one vehicle? I feel safer knowing I can take care of myself if something should happen," she said. "I see more flirting than patrolling some days ... Don't get me wrong, not all of the officers are lacking in competence. There are some very nice officers who definitely know how to do their jobs, and I am more than confident that they would help if they were on duty. It's the officers I never see out of their vehicles, the officers who flirt with the co-eds, and the surly, unhelpful officers that concern me."

The crime statistics available for Lindenwood University-Belleville indicate no sex offenses, aggravated assaults or robberies were reported on the campus in 2011 or 2012. Statistics for 2013 are not yet available.

"We've never had a sexual assault. We've never had a battery. We've never had any serious, felony crimes occur here," said Angela Wingo, director of security at Lindenwood. "I'm extremely comfortable with the safety of students here on campus. Our goal is to be very proactive in our approach and not rely on reactivity."

At Lindenwood, off-duty police officers double as security officers and patrol the campus.

"Having actual police officers on this campus is truly a deterrent in and of itself. The visibility of these officers is what has controlled the crime here," Wingo said.

Kayla Tripod, who attends Lindenwood University-Belleville, said she feels safe on campus.

"We constantly have security walking around campus," said the 21-year-old from Arkansas. "I see them every day. I feel pretty safe."

On May 1, the U.S. Department of Education put 55 colleges and universities under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.

None of the four metro-east universities is among the 55. However, two higher-education institutions in Illinois are being investigated -- Knox College in Galesburg and the University of Chicago.

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