For many young people, college is the first time they will live anywhere but their parents’ home – which puts a heavy burden on schools to keep their students safe.
The concern of crime on campuses is so serious that schools are required by federal law to keep statistics. What an analysis of those numbers showed for Fort Lewis College could be considered alarming:
The “campus in the sky” with an idyllic view of the La Plata Mountains had more incidents per capita for liquor-law arrests, arson cases and forced sex offenses in the last decade than nine other four-year colleges in Colorado.
It ranked No. 2 in drug arrests, burglaries and felony assaults per capita during the same time period.
The statistics are maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.
While the numbers sound ominous, FLC President Dene Kay Thomas said parents should be comforted, not concerned.
She said it is because the college is vigilant about monitoring and addressing illegal activity that its crime rate appears high.
The college is small in size and has its own certified law-enforcement agency, which isn’t the case with other small colleges that employ security guards who notify police when necessary.
The college errs on the side of recording incidents, even when there may be some gray area, she said.
“We are incredibly strict on filing all reports even if there’s a question, but I think that’s what we should be doing,” Thomas said.
She said her years of experience as a parent and an administrator at different schools tell her parents of FLC students have nothing out of the ordinary to fear.
“I have not seen any unique problems,” she said.
FLC officials say every college or university deals with students who “make poor decisions.” Drug and alcohol use and abuse are issues at institutions across the country, FLC spokesman Mitch Davis said in a prepared statement.
The college strives to help students make good choices, he said, but that is not always possible. In situations where drugs or alcohol are involved, the college offers educational and treatment programs, he said.
Drug and alcohol arrests on campus have increased during the last 10 years despite a decline in student enrollment, statistics show.
The number of drug arrests spiked in the last five years. The college averaged 17 per year between 2001 and 2006 but jumped to 67 between 2008 and 2010.
FLC Police Chief Arnold Trujillo said the increase may be linked to the proliferation of medical marijuana across the state in recent years.
The college does not allow medical marijuana to be smoked on campus. If students are caught smoking pot on campus and have a medical-marijuana card, they are warned they can’t have it on campus. If they keep doing it, they will be arrested, Trujillo said, but so far that hasn’t happened.
Trujillo said the police department works closely with the college housing department, and they are proactive in addressing substance-abuse offenses.
Students interviewed for this story said they generally feel safe on campus and are not too worried about crime. They acknowledged that substance abuse is a problem, but it is no more so than on other college campuses.
“Fort Lewis kind of has a reputation for being a party school, but all my friends who went off to other places had similar experiences,” said Keelin Cox, 21, a junior studying religion.
Cox said she feels safe walking alone at night on campus, but she avoids doing so as a matter of rule.
Questions about the data
The number of sexual assaults at FLC per year has varied widely. In 2001, six were reported and in 2002, eight, but none at all were reported in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, two were reported, and one was reported in 2010, according to the data.
Sexual assaults can include rape, fondling and locker-room hazing, Davis said.
While any sexual assault is concerning, college officials said the variability makes it impossible to discern a pattern or trend.
FLC also ranked high in arsons per capita compared with other colleges during the last 10 years.
It’s not that students burn buildings and dormitories down, Trujillo said; rather, students might see a flyer they disagree with and set fire to it.
In September 2008, someone set fire to the exterior of a professor’s door that also scorched the carpet.
In general, college officials said the data shouldn’t be used to make comparisons because some crime categories have such low numbers, and the variation from year to year is so great, that some or all of the state schools fall within a statistical margin of error.
But they still think crime is a problem that should be addressed, and the college offers a number of prevention and treatment services to further students’ well-being.
The primary prevention program on campus is Student Wellness Initiatives, which provides educational opportunities in residence halls, classrooms and the college community at large.
The program trains a group of certified peer educators – students who create programing on campus to address issues that are most relevant to new students. These topics include the effects of alcohol and other drug use, the relationship between alcohol use and sexual assault, and misconceptions of community norms regarding the use of substances.
The student-wellness office also trains faculty and staff how to recognize students struggling with drug or alcohol problems.
The college has a counseling center, through which all full-time students are entitled to four counseling sessions per academic year.
At the same time, the college supports programs and activities that can be an alternative to drinking and drugging, including speakers, films, comedians and concerts.
“I feel we have been a very active college in these regards,” Thomas said.