Venturing out into the world is no small task for college-bound young Americans, and while rates of violent crime are falling nationwide, safety and common sense remain essential. College students contend with violent crime, robberies, identity theft, and sexual assault every day. Some of these crimes are rare; others are shockingly commonplace. Regardless of the perceived risks in a given location, all college students should follow a few basic safety guidelines to protect themselves on and off campus.
I. General Student Safety Practices
Travel Safely at Night
American campuses are big, and despite safety improvements over the last decade, it is difficult for security to cover every corner and pathway. According to the FBI, college-aged adults are the most likely group to be victims of random violent crimes, with a rate of almost two crimes for every 100 people.
When returning late at night, stick to the main routes where security patrols are more frequent. Walk with a group of friends, and make sure somebody knows where you are at all times.
If you do encounter a suspicious or threatening person, don’t hesitate to call 911. Also, know the location of the nearest emergency call box, if your campus has them; they’re usually marked with blue lights. Campus security may be able to respond more immediately than regular police.
Act on Threats
Never hesitate to contact the authorities if you feel threatened. FBI statistics show that in 38% of violent crimes committed in public spaces, the perpetrator is someone the victim already knows. More disturbingly, research shows that 74% of all murder victims, and 84% of assault victims, were stalked for a long time before they were attacked. If you feel threatened by someone, act decisively. Contact your local campus security office; stalking and other threatening behavior are taken very seriously by campus authorities.
Avoid Identity Theft
Not all crime on campus is violent. In fact, the most common crimes are not. One of the fastest rising dangers is identity theft. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, seven out of 100 Americans aged 16 or older were victims of identity theft in 2012 alone.
The most common crimes involve credit card or bank account information. Since college can involve a rush of forms to fill out, as well as signing up for a credit card and bank account, be sure to thoroughly protect yourself:
- Shred ― don’t just throw away ― all financial paperwork and mail when you are done with it, or keep it in a safe or lockbox.
- Memorize your passwords. Don’t leave them written down in a dorm room!
- Never choose an obvious password like a birthday or the name of a significant other.
- Include a mix of numbers, symbols and capital letters in your passwords.
For more on protecting yourself from identity theft, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website and online guide.
II. On-Campus Safety
While we have already covered some of the more straightforward and immediate ways to stay safe on campus, there is still a lot students can do to to protect themselves. Here are some key principles to help students avoid the three most common campus crimes: assault, robbery, and rape.
Keep Doors Locked
College campuses foster a sense of community and openness, but you shouldn’t let your guard down. According to data collected by the Office of Postsecondary Education, there were around 10,550 robberies and burglaries reported in college campus housing across the nation in 2012.
Always lock the door to your dorm room, and never let strangers into the residence hall, even if they look like they belong. If the building requires a key card, it’s for a good reason. Avoid propping exterior doors open, even if you’re making quick trips back and forth.
Know Where to Find Emergency Phones
Emergency call boxes, usually marked by glowing blue lights, are common on many U.S. campuses. Knowing where to find them is critical. Campus police can often respond more quickly to emergencies than regular police, and the call boxes work with the push of a button, automatically relaying your location. In the event of an emergency, this can save critical time in getting you help.
Use the Campus Security Office
Just about every large campus has its own security department. Have the emergency and non-emergency numbers saved in your phone – remember, call if you have any concerns. Don’t wait for a crime to happen.
III. Preventing Sexual Assault
According to the federal government, between 20 and 25 percent of female students experience some form of sexual assault while at college. Due to shocking figures like these, all college-aged women should be aware and informed before even stepping foot on campus.
Educate Yourself to Avoid Dangerous Situations
According to the same government data mentioned above, between 80 and 90 percent of sexual assaults are committed by somebody the victim knows, and almost half of the time, it occurs during a romantic encounter. In social situations, don’t let yourself be pressured into doing something you don’t want to, and speak up immediately if you are uncomfortable. Go to parties in a group, and never leave your drink unattended or accept open drinks from people you don’t know. More information on avoiding sexual assault can be found at the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) website.
Know the Warning Signs of Abuse
Learn how to recognize the warning signs of an abusive partner and act decisively; remove that person from your life entirely if necessary. Abuse comes in many forms, from physical to emotional, and it is important for you to surround yourself with people who make you feel safe. If someone you know makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, it is okay to end contact and interaction with that toxic individual. More information on warning signs of abuse can be found at WomensHealth.gov.
Prepare Yourself: As a last resort, female college students should know how to defend themselves. In 2011, only 36% of institutions offered sexual assault defense classes. If your college or university offers such a class, sign up; otherwise, search for an off-campus program through the Rape, Aggression Defense Systems (RAD) website or other resource.
What to Do if You Are a Victim of Sexual Assault
- If you are the victim of a sexual assault, the first thing you must do is get to a safe place away from the perpetrator.
- Report the crime immediately. Call 911. Even if you are not sure if what happened was a crime or are worried about calling the police, call an emergency dispatch and explain where you are.
- Seek medical attention. Even if you have no physical signs of injury, you are at risk of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. If possible, don’t shower or sleep before seeing a doctor. Your safety as well as physical evidence from your attacker is best preserved if you go directly to an emergency room or medical facility after your attack. If you are unsure if your doctor is equipped to collect forensic evidence, call 1-800-656-HOPE for a list of medical facilities nearby that are.
- Recognize that the healing process from a sexual assault takes time. There are many resources available to assault victims and their families. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE to speak anonymously with a counselor. Visit the RAINN website for more information and resources to help you recover from an attack.
Know Your Rights: The Campus SAVE Act
In the wake of epidemic levels of sexual assault on U.S. college campuses, Congress passed the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE) in 2011. The new law requires colleges and universities to provide students with training and education on sexual violence and sets minimum standards for addressing such crimes. The full text of the law can be found here. A summary version is available through the Clery Center for Security on Campus.
IV. At-Home Safety
As students advance into their junior and senior years, many decide to take the leap and live independently off campus. If you are looking to rent your own place, remember you are now responsible for your own safety, and this is serious business. One out of every three violent crimes occurs in or around one’s own home, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. You are also faced with the risks of fire, flood, burglary, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Take a look at the following steps to help ensure your new home is comfortable and secure.
Hold Your Landlord Accountable
Each state has its own laws and regulations covering landlord responsibilities, but just about all include some stipulations for guaranteeing the safety of the renters, like mandatory working locks, smoke detectors, and proper lighting at entrances and exits. Usually a simple internet search for your state’s requirements can offer a full explanation. Be sure to read up on the rules in your state, and make sure your landlord is in full compliance.
Choose a Safe Neighborhood
Before signing a lease, do a little research about your new neighborhood. Most large cities have crime data by neighborhood available through the local police website, like this one in Seattle, WA. You might return home late from time to time, so it is better to choose a safe place to live.
Don’t Turn Down Renter’s Insurance
Burglary rates have dropped over past years, but it is still a danger, with just under 30 break-ins per 1,000 households in 2011. If you value your belongings, take the initiative to get renters insurance, usually for just $20-30 per month. More info can be found at USA.gov.
Also, if you live on the first floor in a relatively high-crime area, make sure you have bars on your windows and strong locks to keep you and your belongings safe.
Beware of Carbon Monoxide
Only about half of U.S. states require landlords to provide carbon monoxide detectors. You can find the requirements for your state through the National Conference of State Legislatures website. Whatever the case may be in your state, take proactive steps. Almost 500 people died each year in the U.S. from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from 1999 to 2010, according to the CDC.
If one is not provided by a landlord, purchase a CO detector for your apartment, and visit this CDC site for more information.
V. Commuter Student Safety
If you commute to campus, all of the above principles still apply. Government data shows that large portions, sometimes the majority, of on-campus crimes don’t occur in the residence halls. In fact, commuter students should be extra vigilant; parking lots are one of the most common locations for violent crimes, accounting for over 7% of incidents according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Additionally, the U.S Centers for Disease Control show that car accidents are still the leading cause of death for young adults.
The following are important tips to keep in mind as a commuter student.
- Always lock your car doors.
- Don’t sit in your car with your doors unlocked after getting in. Immediately relock the doors, start your car, and go.
- Don’t leave valuables in plain sight through your car windows.
- Make sure your car is in good running condition with enough gas. You don’t want to get stranded on the side of the road at night. Just in case, be sure to have a charged cell phone and roadside emergency kit.
- If you take a bus or train, know the schedule well in advance to avoid waiting alone for a long time at a dark bus stop or train station.
College years can be some of the most formative in a person’s life, so make sure they are rewarding and happy. While the odds may be in your favor for most crimes, dangers like sexual assault and identity theft are troublingly common on U.S. campuses. It’s always best to prepare yourself for any situation.