An Essential College Question that High School Students Often Don’t Think to Ask

By Sam Rosensohn

The headline blared:  Piggybacker Assailant Attacks Woman in Peabody Terrace Vestibule in Broad Daylight, Then Flees Scene.

“Thinking that he was a resident, she let him in the inner door,” read Adam M. Guren’s account in Harvard’s school newspaper. “He proceeded to follow her to her room, where he grabbed her from behind. After she screamed the offender fled the building.”

Harvard University police described the suspect as a white male in his late twenties, 5 feet, 11 inches tall, medium build with short straight hair. He was wearing a white t-shirt, and knee-length shorts.

“We would like to take the opportunity to strongly urge all community members not to allow anyone to piggyback into a building with them, resident or otherwise,” Steven Catalano, a police spokesman, told The Harvard Crimson, the university’s daily newspaper since 1873.

That was last week.

Last January, Benedict H. Gross, Dean of Harvard College, issued a Safety Message to Students that stated, “The University takes its responsibility over the security of the campus very seriously, and the unusual number of reported assaults has prompted the university to take a number of steps.”

Gross noted the steps that Harvard had taken, and I mention all of this, not to paint Harvard as a thug’s paradise, but because many prospective students don’t get around to asking key safety questions about the schools they apply to.

Last February, the American College Health Association issued a report entreating college and university officials to deal more effectively with violence on their campuses. Harvard is an example of a school that does an excellent job of confronting the violence that hurts its students.

Harvard gets the word out. It doesn’t try to sweep the violence under the carpet. Matter of fact, the school newspaper keeps a police log, most of which appeared more juvenile than consequential the morning I looked at it. Here’s a sampling:

On July 17 at 3:45 a.m. – HUPD officers investigated reports of a boisterous group said to be breaking bottles in the Law School Quad. The officers determined that the individuals were drinking legally and had broken the bottle accidentally.

Later that morning at 8:35 a.m.—Officers were dispatched to investigate reports of a person sleeping in the Weld Hall laundry room. The officers roused the person from his sleep and asked him to sleep in his own room in the future.

The Campus Violence White Paper said that the consumption of alcohol and the sports culture, which can promote male privilege, were two significant causes of campus violence.

The paper written by Joetta L. Carr, of Western Michigan University, noted that between 1995 and 2002 college students between the ages of 18-24 were victims of approximately 479,000 crimes of violence annually.

During this seven year period college students experienced crimes at a lower average rate than non-students in the same age group, except for rape and sexual assault.

According to the report:

* Approximately six percent of female students were victims of rape or attempted rape last year.

*Alcohol and other drugs were implicated in approximately 55-74 percent of sexual assaults on campus.

* An estimated 1,400 college students die each year from alcohol related injuries.

* Simple assault accounted for about two-thirds of college student violent crimes.

* Male college students were twice as likely to be victims of overall violence than female students.

* Strangers committed 58 percent of all violent crimes to students.

* Approximately 93 percent of crimes against students occurred off-campus. Approximately 15 percent of students reside on campus.

* Only 35 percent of violent acts against students were reported to the police between 1995-2002.

* Firearms were present in 9 percent of all violent crimes, 8 percent of assaults, and 31 percent of the robberies against college students.

* Nationwide, 8 percent of men and 1 percent of women have working firearms at college.

* Nearly 19 percent of students who drank alcohol reported being physically injured.

* Approximately 70 percent of the off-campus violence against students occurs between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

* Approximately 55 percent of on-campus violence against students occurs between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The American College Health Association, which published these findings, made the following recommendations: Offer students alcohol and smoke-free residence halls. Create zero tolerance polices for campus violence. Enforce codes of conduct. Implement tougher sanctions, including expulsion or suspension for serious misconduct.

“A fundamental contradiction built into campus life contrasts the necessity of recruiting students, winning over parents, attracting donors, versus the reality of various forms of violence on campus,” wrote Carr, author of the Campus Violence White Paper.

My suggestion is to ask admissions officers what their college or university is doing to assure student safety both on and off campus. If they’re doing a lot they’ll be fast to share it with you.

This brings us back to the Safety Message that Benedict Gross, Dean of Harvard College, posted last winter. He noted the steps his school had taken to stem student violence.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the New SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at