Campus Crime Research Paper

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During the past two decades, campus crime has captured the attention of both the public and researchers who sought to unpack the causes, correlates, and consequences of various types of violent and property crime committed on college and university campuses. Much research to date has focused on identifying how students’ lifestyles and daily routines create opportunities for on-campus victimization. Other studies have examined college campuses as places and explored how their features create opportunities for crime. This research paper examines both lines of research and synthesizes the extant literature to describe the dynamics of campus crime. The paper also presents some of the controversies within the study of campus crime, including measurement issues, overreliance upon case studies of single campuses, and the problem of underreporting of crimes occurring on college campuses. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of open questions in the study of campus crime, including the question of the extent of campus crime, how to better translate research into policies or programs aimed at reducing campus crime, and the ultimate utility of legislation at the federal and state level designed to reduce campus crime.


America’s colleges and universities present an apparent anomaly: physically attractive places fostering the intellectual development of young adults that may, in reality, be dangerous places beset by violence, vice, and victimization. More specifically, the seemingly safe appearance of college campuses has been coupled with a conventional view held by many campus administrators, students, and their parents that campus violence, vice, and victimization are merely “youthful indiscretions” resulting from students’ newfound personal freedoms, including sexual promiscuity, alcohol consumption, and recreational use of illegal drugs.

These views, however, changed during the 1990s when four groups – a student advocacy group called Security On Campus, campus feminists, campus crime victims and their families, and public health researchers – made claims that crime on US college campuses was not only increasing but becoming more serious and deadly in its consequences. Collectively these groups convinced the public, Congress, and several state legislatures that the “dark side” of the ivory tower was a “dangerous place” rife with “heinous crimes” that not only undermined students’ safety and well-being but also threatened the core educational mission of higher education. As a result, during the early 1990s, Congress and multiple states passed statutes designed to address campus crime. For example, Congress passed the Student Right to Know and Campus Security Act of 1990 (20 USC 1092[f]) (now known as the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics or the Clery Act) which mandates that all Title IV schools (those eligible to participate in federal financial aid) not only publicly report their crime statistics in an annual report but also to implement policies and programs designed to address campus crime, in particular sexual assault against college coeds (Sloan and Fisher 2011). Additionally, nearly one-third of the states passed campus crime-related legislation with wide-ranging requirements (Sloan and Shoemaker 2007).

Looking at 2009 campus crime statistics compiled by the United States Department of Education (2011a) in fulfillment of the Clery Act, there were over 47,000 violent and property crimes reported on college campuses in the United States. The total included 31 murders and non-negligent manslaughters; over 3,300 forcible and non-forcible sex offenses; more than 4,600 robberies; approximately 4,900 aggravated assaults; more than 26,000 burglaries; over 7,200 motor vehicle thefts; and more than 700 incidents of arson. While the magnitude of these numbers is alarming, to put them into perspective, in 2009, over 20 million students were enrolled at 6,883 Title IV designated postsecondary institutions that were required to file annual campus crime reports with the federal government (United States Department of Education 2011b).

As the public began perceiving campus crime as a “serious” problem, a number of researchers started exploring the patterns, correlates, and causes of campus crime. During the past 20 years, this body of research can be classified as having two different, yet complementary, foci: studies whose primary interest was describing and explaining patterns of victimization relating to individuals and studies whose interest was understanding how the characteristics of college campuses such as physical layout and geography explained victimization patterns. In the former instance, the studies examined students’ victimization patterns by different types of personal and property crime, including recent analyses of cyber-based victimizations suffered by students. Identifying individual-level behavior that apparently increased the risk for victimization led researchers to examine how students’ lifestyles and daily routines played a significant role in increasing (decreasing) their risk of victimization. In the latter instance, researchers adopted a perspective which emphasized the college campus as a specific place with distinctive physical and social characteristics that contributed to victimization. Social scientists – including sociologists, criminologists, and geographers – adopting this perspective argued that a criminology of place is not only possible, but is a valuable theoretical and practical lens through which researchers and crime prevention practitioners alike can examine and understand campus crime and, more importantly, take steps to prevent its occurrence (Eck and Weisburd 1995).

This research paper discusses the interrelationship between the characteristics of colleges and universities and students’ lifestyles and daily routines that provide ample opportunities for on-campus personal and property victimization. Campuses are unique places characterized by a distinctive, yet somewhat stereotypical, built environment that helps to structure the daily routines of places and ultimately influences students’ daily lifestyles and ensuing crime patterns. As discussed in more detail below, the patterns of the campus environment-student lifestyle nexus enhance opportunities for different types of crimes to occur more frequently than others.

This research paper begins by discussing the notion of the college campus as a “place.” Relevant literature is then presented that addresses how the characteristics and daily routines of places either may facilitate or retard crimes occurring at or near them. Next, what is known about the relationship between the characteristics of college campuses and crime occurring there is presented. The paper concludes by exploring important controversies and questions that remain concerning campus crime, especially those arising from the perspective of the criminology of place.

Background: The College Campus As A Place

To draw a detailed portrait of offenses occurring on campuses, one must first understand that these events occur at a specific place. Further, one must understand that the characteristics and daily routines of places are not simply physical locations where illegal activities occur. Rather, one must appreciate that the characteristics and routines of a place provide important ingredients necessary to create opportunities for victimization.

Geiryn (2000, pp. 464–465) described a place – such as a college campus – as possessing several salient features. First, a place occupies geographic location (a “unique spot in the universe”) the size of which can vary tremendously. Many land-grant public universities occupy a dozen or more square miles of space, while so-called virtual universities exist in a single building whose carbon footprint is several 1,000 sq ft. Places, such as college campuses, also possess material form “[a] compilation of things or objects” (Gieryn 2000, p. 465). When people describe a particular college campus to others, they may do so by commenting on the particular architectural features the campus possesses such as a large bell tower atop the student union or in terms of natural features such as being adjacent to mountains or having a stream running through it. Places like college campuses also have physicality to them, including geographic markers (e.g., logo signage; staffed entry gates; the hallmark student union) that uniquely characterize a place’s physical space and functions, and signal to visitors that they have entered a place separate and distinct from the adjunct community.

The physicality of a college or university campus is important because “. . . social processes happen through the material forms” that comprise the place (Gieryn 2000, p. 465). On campuses, daily interactions occurring among students, faculty, staff, and visitors take place both inside and outside of offices, classroom buildings, residence and dining halls, stadia, libraries, pathways, streets, parking structures, and green spaces. These interactions are the result of lifestyles or daily routines that each of these campus community members takes on as part of their respective purpose or role while on campus. These interactions and lifestyles – which are structured by physical spaces and their layout – create opportunities for a variety of violent (e.g., rapes, assaults) and property (e.g., automobile thefts, burglaries) victimizations to occur.

Finally, a college campus is invested with meaning and value. When individuals walk by a set of buildings consisting of a large residence hall, a library, a classroom building, and green space where young adults are throwing Frisbees, reading books and connecting to the internet, lounging in the sun, or playing touch football, most would not think “oh, that is a prison.” Some scholars have argued that the meanings created by and resulting from the material form of a place prompt humans to think of these places as communities: locations where people with similar interests purposely gather to interact with one another (e.g., Smith 2002). Annually, college campuses draw groups of individuals who share interests. Researchers are drawn to college campuses because they house needed facilities and resources. Faculty members are drawn to the campus as a place where they can teach young adults and not only help shape their minds, but train them to enter an increasingly complex and competitive workforce. Those seeking positions as support staff are drawn for the opportunities the campus presents to find meaningful employment. Ultimately, those drawn to the campus – despite disparate reasons for arriving there – interact with one another and create a community (Bromley 2007).

The Routines Of Place And Their Patterns

Places also have identifiable routines or rhythms that vary by time of day, day of the week, and season of the year which are shaped by both the built environment – manmade structures and features – and the natural environment. The routines of place include not only the movement of people into or away from it at regular intervals during the day but also the myriad of interactions that are facilitated by the features of the place. In effect, places have patterns associated with them.

Brantingham et al. (1995) have suggested that the patterns or routines that characterize college campuses can be conceptualized as occurring at different levels of spatial analysis. At the macro level, campus routines include vehicular and pedestrian traffic coming onto or exiting the campus and students moving en mass across the campus as one set of classes end and another begins from early morning to late evening. At the meso level, a particular building – for example, the student union – has its own routines and patterns which vary by time of day, day of the week, and season of the year. For example, the student union may be overrun with students during meal times each day during an academic term, but relatively quiet at other times of day when students are studying in their residence halls or in the library. Students’ presence at the union on weekends may be reduced when visitors come to enjoy concerts, movies, or lectures. On some weekends, especially during final exams or the summer, the union may be essentially vacant of both students and visitors.

Finally, at the micro level are the routines associated with a single room within a building such as “Dr. Jones’ laboratory” or “Ms. Smith’s dorm room.” Again, variation in the activities occurring in or around the lab or dorm room takes place according to time of day, day of the week, or academic term. The lab might be very busy in the morning but empty at night while just the opposite might be true of the dorm room. At the beginning (or end) of a term, the lab and the dorm room would be a beehive of activity, while during various breaks in the academic year, each may be occupied by only a handful of students.

Conceptualizing the routines of place as occurring at different levels can be useful to understanding the crime patterns of a place, including college campuses. On a college campus, identifying macro level crime patterns helps to understand the “big picture” of crime at that particular place. What is the most commonly occurring offense on the campus? Are there particular areas of the campus where crime tends to be concentrated – so-called hot spots? If so, where are these located? At the meso level, crime patterns can also be identified for a much smaller part of the larger place. How many rapes or burglaries occurred in the undergraduate residence halls during the fall semester? Which parking garage had the most auto break-ins? Finally, at the micro level, one can again assess patterns that may be associated with a single residence hall room, laboratory, office, or classroom. For example, several years ago at UAB, a particular computer laboratory in one of the older buildings on campus was repeatedly broken into over the course of several months and most of the equipment was stolen. By analyzing evidence at the site of the break-ins, the campus police learned the thefts were generally confined to very early morning hours, that homeless people had been seen climbing through unlocked windows into the building, and that the security devices protecting the equipment had been disabled from the inside.

The patterns associated with the routines of place have both theoretical and practical importance for understanding crime and developing sound situational interventions to address it. Research has consistently shown, for example, that crime is not randomly distributed either spatially or temporally but rather tends to cluster by place and in time (Eck and Weisburd 1995). When crime clusters at certain locations, these are known as “hot spots” (Sherman 1995). The most basic hot spot is a place or area that has a greater than average number of crime or disorder events, or where targets have higher than average risk of victimization. Places include specific addresses, street corners, or other small locations that can be seen by a person, such as a house, convenience store, or drug dealing location. As a result of the groundbreaking “hot spots” work by Sherman and others over the past several decades, combined with developments in spatial and temporal analysis of crime, criminologists developed a new theoretical orientation that instead of focusing on individuals and their behaviors focuses on places – the “criminology of place” – to underscore that opportunities for crime are shaped by the characteristics of places, individuals’ lifestyles and daily routines, and time of day. Further, places – like individual offenders – have “careers” associated with them including onset, continuance, specialization, and desistance (Sherman 1995). A particular hot spot was not always “hot.” It develops over time based on how its features – both physical and symbolic – and routines draw prospective offenders and targets to it (onset). The place continues as a hot spot for some period (continuance), which may be years, and may disproportionately involve certain crimes such as armed robbery (specialization). Finally, because of direct police intervention, neighborhood changes, or other factors, the hot spot desists as a place disproportionately responsible for crime (desistance).

On a practical level, understanding the dynamics of place including how they are organized for crime to occur and how the routines of place at the macro, meso, and micro level bring together would-be offenders and potential targets can inform primary prevention measures to reduce the probability of crime occurring. Strategies such as target hardening, changing the physical design features of a place, having individuals change their daily routines (e.g., not carrying large amounts of cash on their person; insuring valued goods stored in a vehicle are not left in the open), or altering their lifestyles (e.g., not getting drunk, not consuming illegal substances) when frequenting certain types of places (e.g., residence halls) can help to change the routines of a place and patterns of behavior and therefore might reduce the opportunity for victimization.

College Campuses And Opportunities For Crime: Institutional, Demographic, And Lifestyle-Routine Characteristics

The institutional, demographic, and lifestyle characteristics of colleges and universities create untold opportunities for violent and property victimization for the nearly 20 million students and the millions of faculty and staff, and countless visitors to college campuses each year. Below, these characteristics and their contribution to crime on college campuses are examined.

Institutional And Demographic Characteristics

Although the more than 6,000 Title IV 2and 4-year post-secondary institutions differ widely across their institutional characteristics, researchers have identified a set of characteristics strongly correlated with official crime rates – crimes known to and recorded by the campus police or security (Fernandez and Lizotte 1995; Bromley 1994; Sloan 1994). Schools with large enrollments, for example, have higher rates of on-campus rape, assault, robbery, burglary, and larceny than schools with smaller enrollments. Campuses with large student enrollments apparently provide more opportunities for victimization because they: (1) possess more targets for would-be offenders, and (2) allow for greater anonymity among potential offenders within the student body.

Research also shows that campuses with a large percentage of full-time students have higher official rates of assault, robbery, burglary, and motor vehicle theft. One explanation for this is that full-time students tend to spend more time on campus than part-time students which increases their exposure to potential offenders and provides a larger number of targets from which offenders may choose.

Residential campuses – schools that have a large number of students living in on-campus residence halls or apartments – have higher rates of rape and larceny whereas commuter schools have higher rates of motor vehicle theft and robbery. In contrast, rural campuses, on average, have lower rates of all forms of violent (rape, assault, and robbery) and property crime (burglary, motor vehicle theft, and larceny) than do urban campuses.

One of the strongest and most consistent predictor of official rates of campus crime is the cost associated with room and board per academic year. Campuses with higher room and board costs generally report higher rates of crime whose motivation is economic, for example, robbery, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and larceny. Students enrolled at “costly” schools might also have plenty of attractive, high-quality targets (e.g., electronic devices and their accessories; designer clothing) to steal with relatively little risk for the offender. Further, research shows that most students while on campus do not routinely engage in proven crime prevention behaviors that reduce their chances of victimization (Fisher et al. 1997).

Research further indicates there is a demonstrable relationship between students’ demographic characteristics and campus crime rates (Fernandez and Lizotte 1995; Bromley 1994; Sloan 1994). Since the 1940s, the demographic composition of colleges and universities has changed dramatically, with total student enrolled increasing annually. In particular, the number of women and minorities enrolled at post-secondary degree-granting institutions has seen tremendous increases, especially over the past three decades. In 2009, approximately 55 % of the 20 million students enrolled at all postsecondary institutions were women (United States Department of Education 2011c) while some 32 % of students enrolled at degree-granting post-secondary schools in 2009 were racial and/or ethnic minorities (Rigg 2010).

Several studies find that the percentage of male students enrolled at a college or university consistently is linked with campus crime rates, such that the more males enrolled, the higher the overall crime rates (Fernandez and Lizotte 1995; Bromley 1994; Sloan 1994). Research also shows that colleges and universities with higher percentages of minority students also have higher rates of violence reported to officials. A similar relationship is found between the percentage of African-American students enrolled and rates of campus assault, robbery, and burglary.

Understanding the effects of institutional and students’ demographic characteristics allows post-secondary administrators to determine whether campus crime rates at their school are typical for or similar to comparable campuses or due to other factors, perhaps students’ lifestyles and routines. For example, some campuses with large student enrollments may have “naturally” high crime rates. A problem arises when campuses with high crime rates have institutional and demographic characteristics associated with low crime rates. This requires exploring how the physical design features of the campus as a place potentially interact with the lifestyle-routine activities of campus members to see how those interactions provide opportunities for victimization.

Campus Places

College campuses occupy finite geographical areas that vary in size. Campuses typically are divided into smaller parcels designated for various uses including housing, instruction, research, common areas, entertainment and leisure, etc. These spaces also are usually arranged in a way such that the space utilized for one function does not mix with space designated for another. Collegiate residence halls or apartments for married students, for example, would ordinarily not be located directly adjacent to a football stadium or research laboratories where exotic and potentially lethal viruses are being studied. Rather, residence halls tend to be located near one another and away from other space clusters designed for different uses.

Arranging common usage of space on the campus is conducive to creating daily interactions among faculty members, students, staff, and visitors. There may be several such segmented areas on a campus depending on its age and needs, or as new needs arise or priorities change to account for expansion of student and faculty needs. However, for reasons ranging from the utilitarian to the aesthetic, the general pattern is that similarly designated spaces tend to cluster together in space.

This segmentation of a campus into areas of designated usage has implications for understanding the spatial and temporal distribution of campus crime. A college or university with several thousand students living on campus will have many residence halls and student apartments to accommodate housing demand. These, in turn, will likely be clustered together and several such clusters will be located around campus. Buildings that primarily contain classrooms or research laboratories will likewise be clustered together, rather than randomly placed, and again may be found in several locations around campus. Parking lots and decks are typically located on the edges of the campus, especially if the campus is “pedestrian friendly” and vehicular access is restricted to the fringes of the campus.

Clusters of similarly utilized space provide differential opportunities for offenders. For example, a five-story parking deck is a far more likely candidate for automobile theft or automobile break-ins than is a building housing research laboratories where theft of property, such as laboratory equipment, would be likely more common. Offenders may perceive that a cluster of dormitories is a good target for burglary, but less so for crimes against the person such as robbery. A small, isolated parking lot on the fringe of campus may be perceived as a good target for robberies but not for automobile theft, due to the limited number of vehicles actually parked there. Ultimately, spatial distribution and space utilization of a campus has significant implications for target selections by prospective offenders.

Additionally, clusters of similarly utilized spaces have their own routines at various points during the day or evening which likely differs from the routines associated with other clusters. During a typical day, there will likely be specific times when clusters of buildings, parking lots and decks, residence halls, etc. are “busy” with students, faculty, or staff coming and going. There are specific times during the day or at night when such spaces are relatively quiet. These “down-periods” during the 24-h cycle of the day present opportunities to offenders since few people are present to serve as guardians for the places that prospective offenders may perceive as attractive targets. Large parking decks or lots while classes are in session likely mean few people would be present, which increases opportunities for vehicular thefts or break-ins. As a result, because of variation in the routines associated with clusters of differentially utilized spaces, prospective offenders are likely to perceive these clusters – and the individuals typically found there – as differently convenient targets. Thus, not only the spatial distribution of spaces and their usage but also the temporal patterns associated with those spaces matter in terms of understanding campus crime.

Campus Routines And Lifestyles

The routine, everyday activities of students, faculty, staff, and visitors have significant influences on their chances of becoming a victim of crime while on campus. Although its population is moderately transitory, college campuses also have constant and familiar activities and routines. The lifestyle-routine activity approach to understanding crime victimization describes how one’s daily activities and lifestyles converge in time and space with a would-be offender to create opportunities for criminal victimization (Cohen and Felson 1979). Four concepts are central to this approach for explaining how and why victimization can occur: attractiveness of the target; proximity of one or his/her property to a motivated offender; guardianship over a person or his/her property; and exposure of his/her property to a potential offender. Understanding how each of these concepts plays out on campus broadens one’s understanding of the mechanisms underlying the occurrence of crime on college campuses.

Students and Victimization. Students’ pursuit of education and recreation has them on campus at all hours of the day, every day of the week. They also experience a variety of violent and property victimizations while on campus. Fisher et al. (1998) found that nearly one-fourth of the students in a national sample had been victimized at least once while on campus during the current academic year. Campus victimizations occur in a wide array of situational contexts that are unique to on-campus locations, compared to those that are off campus. For example, Hart and Miethe (2011) have shown that the specific attributes of “minor assaults of male victims in daytime hours” were far more likely to occur in on-campus contexts than off campus.

Students who live on campus spend a considerable amount of time in their residence halls. These provide not only shelter and food, but they are also places where daily relationships and routines are established (and broken). Living in a residence hall, especially those that are high-density with little supervision as to who enters or exits, increases opportunities for victimization by increasing the number of suitable targets and exposure of them to motivated offenders, while reducing the level of guardianship over person and property. Fisher and her colleagues (1997) reported that of the student victims of crime who lived on campus in undergraduate or graduate housing, or in a fraternity or sorority, 86 % of them lived in an undergraduate residence hall. Identifying on-campus locations where incidents had occurred revealed that crimes of violence, vandalism, threats, and harassment occur most frequently in students’ living quarters.

Students’ lifestyles and routines also lend themselves to opportunities for victimization every day of the week around the clock. Each year students bring attractive, portable, lightweight targets to campus with them: portable computers, electronic pads and tablets, cell and smart phones, calculators, backpacks, books, roller blades, skateboards, and bicycles. Students carry many of these items with them while they attend classes or social events. Many students drive motor vehicles to campus daily or park vehicles on or near campus during the duration of the academic term. Concurrently, they are all too often inattentive guardians of their property (or their person) and leave residence hall, office, or vehicle doors unlocked or propped open; leave bicycles unlocked; or just walk away from their property at the library, student union, or classroom for “just a few minutes.” As a result, dormitories, bicycle racks, libraries, student unions, or classrooms can all become “hot spots” of crime because students are typically poor guardians of their property. Moreover, students leave the campus en mass at the end of an academic term or for long periods during holiday breaks, which leaves the campus filled with many attractive targets without guardianship.

The college years are also notorious for an active social life for many students. They may attend weekly parties; drink habitually and heavily or experiment with drugs; and attend entertainment or cultural events. All of this activity occurs in places on campuses where students naturally congregate. Such lifestyles and routines have, in turn, been linked to increased probabilities for on-campus victimizations. The Harvard Alcohol Study found that students who had been the victims of crime on campus reported significantly more frequent drug and alcohol use than students who had not been victimized (Dowdall 2009). The number of nights spent on campus partying and the likelihood of regularly taking recreational drugs during the past year also have been reported to be significant predictors of students’ on-campus violent victimization (Fisher et al. 1998). Given their 24–7 on-campus lifestyles, it is not surprising that a temporal pattern concerning on-campus student victimization shows that violent crimes were likely to have occurred in the early morning hours, in particular between 12:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. (Fisher et al. 1998).

Faculty, Staff, and Victimization. Faculty members, like students, also have routine activities on college campuses that increase their risk for victimization. Faculty members, especially untenured assistant professors, are frequently on campus during the week and on weekends, sometimes spending long hours into the night and early morning working on research, grading papers, or writing manuscripts. Many spend considerable amount of time in their offices or laboratories, or walking to and from classes, meetings, the library, or a seminar. Most faculty members work alone in their office even when support staff have gone home for the day. Many faculty members also teach night courses. Because of their routines, many faculty members are exposed to a large number of students every academic term. Some faculty members even socialize with students outside of class in the student union or other establishments on or near campus.

Faculty members also have valuable, attractive targets such as laptop computers, multimedia equipment, laser printers, laboratory equipment, secured data, books, motor vehicles, and other personal items. Faculty can also be poor guardians of their property. At times, they leave offices or laboratories unlocked or computers unsecured between classes or meetings, and may prop open doors to buildings, offices, or laboratories so as not to have to fetch keys or recall a lock combination. With the routine arrival of new faculty members each academic term, while others are on leave or sabbatical during the school year, access control to buildings and offices may be severely compromised on a daily basis.

Wooldredge, Cullen, and Latessa (1995), in a study of faculty members’ victimization experiences at the University of Cincinnati West campus (all colleges except the medical and nursing colleges), reported 27 % of faculty members surveyed reported they had experienced at least one property victimization on campus (burglary, stolen property, or damage to property) during the academic year, while 5 % reported they had experienced at least one personal victimization (robbery, assault, sexual assault, or assault with a deadly weapon). Those whose offices are not within shouting distance of their colleagues; who do not teach in buildings where their office is located; and whose office is in a comparatively non-secure building on campus are more likely to experience an on-campus property crime. Faculty members who spend more time on campus after hours and on Saturdays, who walk alone on campus more frequently (other than going to class), and who socialize with students outside class are also more likely to experience personal victimization while on campus.

Staff members typically work 8-h shifts, primarily Monday–Friday and during daylight hours. Like faculty, they too possess attractive targets. To date, there are no published studies on the extent and nature of victimization among staff working on college campuses. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that their patterns of victimization may be similar to those of faculty.

Visitors to Campus and Victimization. The routine activities of visitors to campus are somewhat different from those of students, faculty members, and staff. Every term, prospective students and their parents frequently meander around the campus. Students from other campuses visit with friends; sports fans attend athletic events or hold tailgate gatherings; and cultural buffs frequent movies, concerts, art galleries, and plays. Delivery trucks filled to the brim with products and packages are daily sights on campus. Visitors bring plenty of property with them that is attractive to would-be offenders – cash, portable electronic equipment, expensive jewelry and watches, motor vehicles. Like staff, no studies of campus visitors have been published but it is likely that students who visit friends and enjoy activities where alcohol and drugs are plentiful and visitors who attend sporting events and enjoy pregame, during-the-game, and post-game celebrations might experience a pattern of victimization similar to students who actively engage in an active “party lifestyle.”

Tracking The Spatial And Temporal Distribution Of Campus Crime

Crime on campus, like crime in other locations, is not randomly distributed in space or time. Robinson and Roh (2007) illustrated this point in an analysis of crime on the campus of Appalachian State University (ASU) for the period 2004–2005 using calls-for-service data stored in campus police crime logs. Analyzing those data revealed that the four most commonly reported offenses on the ASU campus over the 2-year period of study included alcohol violations, theft of property, illegal drug possession, and vandalism (Robinson and Roh 2007, p. 239). More importantly, they determined that hot spots on the ASU campus included locations at or near: (1) student residence halls, (2) high-traffic areas between the main parts of the campus such as near classroom buildings and parking lots near pedestrian tunnels, and (3) specific locations for drug violations, alcohol violations, breaking and entering, and assaults/sexual assaults/forcible fondling. These “crime attractors” or “crime generators” remained relatively stable over the 2 years of study and possessed certain features. For example, one hot spot included two residence halls located within walking distance to the football stadium, its parking lots, and an open field which students use for recreational activities including consuming alcohol, playing sports, and hosting parties. Robinson and Roh also reported that residence halls that were “hot spots” for various crimes tended to be older residences located in the heart of the campus. Compared to these “older” residence halls, newer residence halls’ distance from the center of the campus made them both more physically and socially isolated and apparently less vulnerable to opportunities for victimization.

In a similar study, Resler (n.d.) examined the spatial distribution of crime on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin using police calls-for-service data from 1998. Using geographic information system (GIS) crime mapping software and spatial analysis models, Resler (n.d.) found that “. . . concentrations of crime occur[ed] predominantly around the periphery of campus [and] the characteristics of these high crime areas, such as location and density, influence victimization.” Resler concluded that use of GIS software to map crime distributions and concentrations was an effective tool, and its use opened new avenues for research.

Brower and Carol (2007) examined the temporal and spatial distribution of reported incidents of liquor law violations, assaults and batteries, vandalism, and noise complaints during 2003 on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the City of Madison. They also used GIS crime mapping technology and tracked the movement of different crimes through the city of Madison by time of day, and investigated the relationship between these spatial and temporal movements of crime and the proximities of various student and nonstudent neighborhoods to each other and to high-density bar areas. They found different categories of crime presented different temporal and spatial patterns. For example, serious crimes such as assaults tended to peak between 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. which coincided with bar closing time. Less serious crimes, such as noise violations, peaked between 11:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. Vandalism tended to peak during the late morning and early afternoon. “Hot spots” for the different crimes moved throughout the downtown by time of day. Results of the study were then used by University of Wisconsin and City of Madison officials to implement changes to address high-risk drinking behavior.


Because the study of crime on college and university campuses is, relatively speaking, still in its infancy, controversies over study results are bound to arise. Below, a few of the more important questions that have been raised with these studies are presented.

One significant controversy in the literature concerns wide-ranging estimates that have been produced concerning the extent college women experience various forms of sexual violence during their college tenure. Part of the explanation for disparate estimates of college women’s victimization experiences has to do with how questions about rape, sexual assault, stalking, and other forms of violence are framed. Generally, the broader the question about sexual victimization asked of college women, the larger are the estimates of sexual violence. Fisher and her colleagues (2000) were among the first to document how specific, behaviorally based questions relating to sexual violence against college women significantly affected estimates for victimization. As a result of their work, studies now are more apt to use narrow, behaviorally based questions in surveys of college women to explore the extent of sexual victimization perpetrated against them.

A second controversy is the predominance of research using case studies of crime occurring on a single campus. Typically, one or more researchers will survey students (or faculty or staff) enrolled at a single school or use official data compiled by a single school to examine the causes, correlates, and consequences of crime occurring on campus. While many of these studies have contributed insight into the dynamics of campus crime, the problem is that results from such case studies cannot be generalized to colleges and universities more generally. The works of Fisher and her colleagues (1998, 2000) are notable exceptions; both projects involved national samples of college students.

A final major controversy revolves around the utility of officially compiled data collected by Title IV eligible post-secondary institutions in compliance with the mandates of legislation such as the federal Clery Act. Among other requirements, the legislation mandates that colleges and universities compile statistics on crimes reported to campus authorities for the following offenses: murder and non-negligent homicide; rape; robbery; assault; burglary; automobile theft; and arson. One weakness is that the Clery Act fails to include what is generally regarded (based on victimization surveys) as the most commonly occurring crime on campus, namely, theft or larceny. A second problem, again based on victimization surveys conducted on college students, is that large numbers of offenses occurring on campus go unreported to campus law enforcement or other authorities. As a result, those offenses are never included in the crime statistics published as part of Clery Act requirements, which means Clery Act statistics grossly underestimate the volume of crime occurring on the nation’s college campuses (Fisher et al. 1998).

Unless and until these controversies are settled, contributions from studies of campus crime will likely not have the impact they might, were these issues to be addressed. In particular, campus administrators who may be relying upon extant literature to help them craft responses to crime occurring on their campuses may not develop as effective a response as they might were the controversies settled.

Open Questions

Given the above controversies, several questions remain open to exploration, comment, and debate. The first is rather basic: How much crime occurs on college campuses each year? Currently, the answer to that question depends on where one looks: case studies (from which national-level extrapolations might be developed); “official” data (such as those compiled in compliance with the Clery Act but which, as discussed above omit a major type of crime and suffer from underreporting); or national-level studies (some of which are more than 15 years old).

A second open question is how to better translate the results of academic research on campus crime into practical policies and programs to address the problem and then to evaluate their impact on both crime and fear of crime. Assuming study results used to develop specific programs or policies to reduce campus crime are sound, there is little evidence that programs based on these results are ever evaluated. Further, policies or programs aimed at reducing campus crime too often fail to use sound scientific designs that allow for such necessities as control groups, or designs which rule out rival hypotheses. Criminologists are increasingly advocating the need to use controlled experiments to examine the effectiveness of interventions designed to reduce crime; the same should be true of efforts occurring on college campuses.

Finally, but certainly of no less importance is the ultimate utility of legislation like the Clery Act that is designed to reduce/eliminate campus crime. There are actually several problems with campus crime reporting legislation. First, because reliable baseline statistics for the years prior to the passage of Clery do not exist, it is difficult to know if the legislation has had a positive, negative, or neutral impact on campus crime. Second, post-secondary institutional compliance with Clery has been less than total for a number of reasons, none the least is the amount and type of resources necessary to compile and report the data required by the law. Finally, there is enough evidence to indicate that the very consumers whom the law was passed to serve (particularly prospective college students and their parents) are either unaware of the law and the various reports that are to be generated by colleges and universities in compliance with the law’s mandates, or if they are aware of these reports, few actually consult them (Gregory and Janosik 2007).


Campuses are neither hot beds of criminal victimization nor are they ivory towers immune from the grim reality of crime. They are places whose built and physical environments, institutional and demographic characteristics, space distributions, functional usage, temporal patterns, lifestyles and routines create opportunities for victimization. By developing an orientation that focuses on the criminology of place and on identifying campus characteristics and lifestyles/routines that facilitate opportunities for crime, researchers now better understand how and why campus crime happens. Through identification of crime patterns, researchers also have informed interventions (e.g., banning alcohol on campus or enhancing campus lighting) intended to disrupt the rhythms and routines associated with campus crime.

This work has clear implications for campus policing and campus security, because it is these agencies that will benefit the most from research focusing on the relationship between campus places and campus crime (Ratcliffe 2002). It is these agencies that routinely collect data that can then be used to identify hot spots and adapt personnel and tactics according to changing conditions. These agencies, through place-based analyses of campus crime, also can work with campus administrators to develop and better enforce policies relating to parking, consumption of alcohol, noise ordinance violations, and other problems.

There is reason for optimism that as research devoted to college campuses as places matures, nagging questions about campus crime will be answered. There is also reason to hope that the answers uncovered will, in turn, inspire the development and evaluation of evidence-based policies and programs to reduce or even eliminate campus crime.


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