College Polish

07.13.134:45 AM ET

Staying Safe Off Campus

For college students, security wanes beyond the gates.

As my roommates and I prepared to move out of our dorm, our first year of college complete, we heard news that a fellow Hofstra student had been killed in a home invasion the night before. It wasn’t completely shocking—Hempstead, New York has a higher-than-average crime rate, and we were often warned about walking alone off campus at night—but now that someone had been killed in her home, we reassessed our safety in a new light.

News quickly spread: a girl and her three roommates—including her twin sister—were attacked inside their rented off-campus house after a prison parolee broke in and held them hostage, leading to a shootout with police where student Andrea Rebello was accidentally shot by the cops. The Rebello family intends to sue the Nassau County Police Department for “wrongful death, civil rights and negligence actions.” (John Ciampoli, Nassau County Attorney, has stated he's “sure that that was in the scope of police procedures…and I’m of the belief myself that we’ll find out that the police officer acted appropriately.”)

For a medium-sized school, Hofstra has a relatively low crime rate with few violent crimes logged in recent years. All gates on the residential side of campus close at 9 P.M., preventing anyone without a Hofstra ID from entering. There are 59 public safety officers employed, 18 of which are part-time.

In response to the tragedy, Hofstra has “created a safety committee to examine if any changes should be made to our policies,” Karla Schuster, Assistant Vice President of University Relations, said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Nassau County Police have since stepped up patrols in the surrounding neighborhoods.”

These situations provoke action on the part of colleges, but when the crime itself takes place beyond the campus boundaries, they don’t technically bear the burden of responsibility. Some schools don’t offer any resources at all for students living off campus, though Hofstra does have an office that assists students in finding reliable off-campus housing. Harvard, with 36 reports of aggravated assault from 2009-2011, states on its police website that it is, “concerned primarily with what is occurring on our campus.” The emphasis is all about keeping students safe on campus. But what about students living off campus? Or even when students go out, especially in big cities like Boston and New York that offer so many attractions away from campus?

Part of the problem is the concentration of schools in urban areas, where crime rates are often higher, making the off-campus living areas more dangerous. Columbia University, located in the Morningside Heights neighborhood (on the border with Harlem, known for a higher crime rate), was once ranked on the list of most dangerous schools. However, a spokeswoman from Columbia’s public safety department stated that Columbia has been recognized for the safety of its campus. The Executive Director of Communications, in response to Columbia’s ranking, provided several articles and reports listing Columbia as one of the safest urban schools.

Yet while Columbia can keep students safe on campus, off-campus safety is much harder to control. In 2007, a Columbia graduate student was walking into her off-campus apartment when a man forced his way inside, then raped and tortured her for 19 hours before setting the apartment on fire. The student escaped and her assailant was caught several days later during an unrelated burglary.

Yes, this can happen to anyone, not just college students. If a student chooses to live off campus, she is expected to watch out for herself, the same way that any other adult living on her own would. But in light of these risks, should colleges even allow students to live off campus?

Students typically choose independent housing to save money. So if they were no longer permitted to opt-out, the heft of student loans could increase. Schools might also be forced to acquire additional—often costly—housing.

Thanks to the Clery Act of 1990 (named for a Lehigh University student who was brutally raped and murdered inside her dorm room), all colleges are required to report on-campus crime data to the Department of Education in order to receive federal aid. Yet without data on off-campus crimes committed against students, the picture is incomplete.