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After University of Utah student's death, parents may wonder if their college students are safe

Life sized silhouettes representing victims from West Valley City whose lives ended violently at the hands of a spouse, ex-spouse, family member or partner surround the audience as they attend West Valley City Victim Service’s Domestic Violence Awareness
Life sized silhouettes representing victims from West Valley City whose lives ended violently at the hands of a spouse, ex-spouse, family member or partner surround the audience as they attend West Valley City Victim Service’s Domestic Violence Awareness Night at the West Valley City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018.
Steve Griffin

SALT LAKE CITY — The violent on-campus shooting death of a University of Utah senior Monday night likely has some parents wondering whether their college students are safe on campus. And it has fanned interest in campus safety efforts nationwide.

Lauren McCluskey, 21, died after being shot by a man she had recently dated. He took his own life a few hours later.

The Deseret News asked experts nationwide to talk about how universities and colleges are improving safety, as well as what challenges exist and how parents and students can help. It did not ask the experts to comment directly on McCluskey's death, as that investigation is still unfolding.

Experts say safety is one of the biggest challenges facing colleges — and they've responded for years by ramping up safety efforts, increasing both the scope of services and the way they deliver them.

Campuses have responded to violence and other safety events with everything from technology tools and more staffing to programs that enhance students skills, like self-defense training. Students are often even taught how to safely intervene as bystanders.

"I think it's fair to say colleges and universities, not just their police departments and public safety agencies, are continually looking for ways to prevent crime, especially violent crime against students, faculty and staff," says Jeff Allison, director of government and external relations for the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

Schools learn from each other's bad experiences, he says.

Allison says government statistics and studies all suggest that young adults going to college are generally safer than peers who are not enrolled. And campus-related crime has been decreasing for years overall, though some types of crime have proven more intractable than others.

Sexual assaults have not decreased much, if at all, according to Department of Education data. Alcohol and drug abuse remain major problems — and violence and substance abuse are often related, with substance consumption fueling violence. Alcohol is also the No. 1 way students place themselves at risk, according to Allison.

Dating violence, domestic violence and stalking continue to vex prevention efforts for those crimes.

"We are really just now starting to get a handle on the scope of domestic violence, dating violence and stalking in colleges," says S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, which consults on campus safety issues. "Nationally, we don't have that much comparable data, but we know dating violence is a significant issue for college students across the country."

According to federal guidelines, dating violence is violence by a person who is or has been in a social relationship of a romantic or intimate nature. Domestic violence involves people who live or have lived together. Those are among the more complex safety problems that colleges try to prevent each year.

"Our No. 1 priority for campus safety is that of human life," says Jeff Graviet, director of Emergency Management Services at the University of Utah. "The question is, how do we arm students with as much capability as we can — knowledge, tools and protection — to be able to deal with that?"

That's a question thousands of higher education institutions ponder every day. So do parents and students.

A look at campus crime

In 2016, burglaries were far and away the biggest crime on college campuses. But the Department of Education had reports of nearly 6,700 forcible rapes on campuses, 4,000 aggravated assaults, 3,600 cases of "fondling," 70 statutory rapes and 41 murders, as well as a handful of negligent manslaughter cases.

Carter says the goal is to prevent any bad situation before it escalates, including with dating or domestic violence and other abuse.

Colleges must offer accommodation when possible if a student feels threatened, even if the other party is not affiliated with the school, he says. For example, if the student lives in campus housing, the college could allow an apartment change, assuming another apartment is available. Classes might be changed, or on-campus work assignments.

Campuses have been explicit in trying to make sure students, faculty and staff know what they're dealing with, according to Abigail Boyer, interim executive director of The Clery Center. The center, a campus safety nonprofit, was founded by family and others after Jeanne Clery, 19, was raped and murdered in her college dormitory in 1986. Congress also named the law mandating crime reporting requirements at U.S. colleges and universities after her.

Among the safety questions schools and individuals consider are "Have you identified what an abusive relationship looks like? And are we prepared to intervene?" Boyer says.

Institutions must have a response and specific policies in place to deal with such situations, she notes.

When it comes to campus crimes, sexual assault numbers have been devastating. Carter says as many as 1 in 4 or 5 students will be a victim of sexual assault in their undergrad years, though the crime may not occur on campus. Those numbers have been relatively intractable, he adds. But it varies greatly from school to school — from half of students at one outlier school to 1 in 8 at another outlier on the other side, he says. "Most were in the middle and due to the confidentiality of the study, we don't know which schools are the outliers."

Sexual assault data is also tricky: Some studies suggest college campuses are seeing a decrease, while others disagree, according to Allison.

On the other hand, parents and students who look at a school's safety and crime reports are cautioned to remember that high numbers may not mean a school has more crime than schools with lower numbers. That school may just be much better at collecting data or may have an environment that makes students feel safe reporting crime, says Boyer.

Murders on campus are definitely more rare than other crimes, Carter says.

Data the Deseret News found was not consistent, putting the numbers between about 20 and 45 a year total in the United States, across 6,000 institutions and their sometimes-multiple campuses.

Prevention is the top goal

Colleges are deploying many tools to boost campus security.

The U. has created an emergency response guidebook that's available in hard copy and a related digital app version. It's not meant to be a resource during the emergency, says Graviet, but before danger arises, so the individual knows what to do. It contains, for instance, guidance on what to do during an active shooter event or a weather emergency or if one encounters a suspicious package.

They also have direct-line emergency phones in parking lots on campus that go straight to campus police. Many American colleges and universities employ similar guides and tools.

Colleges nationwide each have campus alert systems that send texts, phone and email alerts to students, parents, faculty, staff and others. Monday night's alert from the U. warned its 55,000-member community of an active shooter and told recipients on campus to shelter in place. Shortly after, it provided be-on-the-lookout information about the suspect. The alert updated periodically and eventually told recipients when the campus was considered secure so people could again move around.

Campuses, in fact, "are powerful" compared to a city of comparable size in terms of warning its people about danger, Graviet says. "We are extremely powerful in terms of communicating, protecting and training. I believe that some of the safest places in our country are campuses. That doesn't mean it's perfectly safe, because it's an open campus. If someone wants to do harm, it's pretty hard to know that in advance."

Nevertheless, colleges everywhere are trying, these experts agree. And the federal government, through the Clery Act and other legislation, has set some standards they must meet. Every college that receives public funds must post safety information and provide crime data each year, among other requirements.

Universities have also placed cameras throughout campuses, which are monitored around the clock. Many offer rape aggression and other self-defense training. Orientations routinely include safety information. And colleges are hiring counselors and others in record numbers to help with anxiety and other mental health concerns.

Often, schools even have their own apps that connect students to resources and tell them where to report safety concerns or how to reach victim advocates or public safety help. For example, the U. has the SafeU app. BYU has a similar app called Y-Alert and its SafeWalk feature so students can have BYU police track their location if they're walking alone. They can hit an emergency button if needed, says BYU spokesman Todd Hollingshead.

What parents and students can do

Allison suggests parents and students considering a school look at what kind of crime prevention services and victim services are available through the college. They should consider what kind of training the campus police offer to students and their relationship with outside local law enforcement.

They also need to remember that on campus or in the community, safety is a joint responsibility, he says. Students should always be aware of their surroundings and make good decisions "about where to go, who to go with" and use of alcohol or other substances that can impair judgment and reaction or otherwise create safety problems.

Boyer tells parents to start having safety conversations with their children early and keep having them as the students grow up. Alcohol and drugs, relationships and how to spot danger are just a few of the ongoing conversations parents and children should have.

"Prevention education is not something that should start in higher education. We know unhealthy relationships don't just start when you head to university," she says.

Other things parents and students can do to increase safety include:

• Not wearing ear buds or reading while you walk across campus. Be aware of your surroundings.

• Use a buddy system when you travel at night.

Allison tells his son, who's going to college in Ohio, that it doesn't matter if he's walking with "five big burly buddies." Someone needs to be paying attention to their surroundings and making sure they're safe. Think of it as a "designated" security person, he says.

• If campus security will provide an escort late at night or the campus has a shuttle system, use it.

• Learn where the safety tools like direct-line campus phones are.

• Don't hesitate to dial 911 on your cell if you feel threatened.

• Report areas that are poorly lit or have lights burned out. Avoid them when you're walking alone.

• In selecting schools, look at the tone and quality of the information that's presented on safety. Check out policies. Examine the school's campus safety webpage.

• Report personal safety concerns, like a problem with someone with whom you have/had a relationship, threats, etc. to the appropriate university officials. And when you first get to campus, find out which office or department handles such a report.

Knowing who to contact and what services are available really matters, according to Boyer. "It goes back to the culture on campus," she says, adding that if people are confident in reporting problems and know that something will be done, safety improves.