Crime Happens

Fatal shootings at U.S. colleges are a chilling reminder that campuses, no matter how insulated or bucolic, are not impervious to violent crime. Duke, like other universities, is giving heightened attention to safety and security.

"Is Duke safe?"

The caller was an alumnus who graduated in the early 1980s. His oldest child and only daughter had just been accepted to Duke. He had read about the murder of a graduate student in an off-campus apartment last January, and heard anecdotes about Durham's crime rate and gang activity. And like people everywhere—but especially parents of young adults—he'd been horrified when a gunman at Virginia Tech killed thirty-two people and injured dozens of others before committing suicide.

Is Duke safe? One could argue that in some ways, it's a lot safer than when the alumnus attended. Back then, the drinking age was eighteen, kegs flowed freely seven days a week, and campus fraternity parties were unmonitored, bacchanalian free-for-alls. Unless you had access to a car, the only way to get around campus after dark was to walk, bike, or take the East-West bus.

Illustration by Brian Hubble

Illustration by Brian Hubble/Photo by Jon Gardiner


Dorms were never locked—scruffy followers of the Grateful Dead took showers in the bathrooms and crashed in commons areas for days at a time whenever the band played local gigs—and sexual-assault awareness and prevention programs were practically nonexistent.

On the other hand, today's binge drinking and its dangerous consequences (alcohol poisoning, subpar academic performance, risky behaviors) are endemic among college students. Instructions on how to manufacture so-called "date rape" drugs like GHB and rohypnol are easily found on the Internet. And fatal shootings on U.S. college campuses—thirty-nine dead in 2007 alone —have become a chilling reminder that a campus setting, no matter how insulated or bucolic, is not impervious to violent crime.

For parents like the anxious alumnus, the question of whether Duke—or any college campus, for that matter—is safe can't be answered with an absolute. Administrators say that it's generally safer for students to live on campus rather than off campus; that traveling alone, especially after dark, is inadvisable; and that personal responsibility —particularly among undergraduates who are more likely to test new limits, drink to excess, and exercise poor judgment—plays an essential yet often overlooked part of keeping the entire Duke community safe.

"Our mission is to have students, faculty, and staff feel comfortable going about their business, whether that's attending class, conducting research, or performing their jobs," says Kemel Dawkins, vice president for campus services. Dawkins' office oversees a dozen departments, including event management, parking and transportation, Duke Gardens, Duke Forest, and the Duke Police Department. "At the same time, Duke is a very open campus. Right now we have people coming from all over for the El Greco exhibit at the Nasher, we have events almost every weekend in the gardens, and there is renewed interest in Duke football. We want to continue to make this a welcoming and inviting place, while engaging our community on a regular basis to look out for each other and report things that don't seem right."

With approximately 15,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional school students; a work force of about 30,000 throughout the university and Duke University Health System (DUHS); and an estimated two million visitors a year, the Duke community is an amorphous and somewhat transient entity. As multiple populations engage in a range of activities—some that overlap and are complementary, others that have nothing in common—Dawkins and his colleagues employ a range of approaches to ensuring the safety and well-being of its members.

"From an institutional standpoint, we are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating safety and security concerns," says Dawkins. "Having said that, I want to make sure that our performance and people's expectations are matched. I don't want people to think that they don't have to take precautions, because they do."

Owing to Duke's porous borders and sprawling footprint—9,350 acres stretching over three counties—crime statistics reflect events that occur not just on the undergraduate campus, but in the medical center (an employee receiving harassing calls from an ex-husband, a visitor shoplifting candy from the hospital canteen), in the far reaches of Duke Forest (car break-ins at trail entrances), or at satellite parking lots (stolen catalytic converters, scratched vehicles). 

"Our crime rates per population density are relatively low," says Aaron Graves, associate vice president for campus safety and security and head of the Duke University Police Department (DUPD). "There is a perception that we are here to protect the community from outside elements, but by far the majority of reported incidents we see are student-on-student theft, or employee-on-employee theft, where items are stolen or misplaced. In these incidents, the victims are part of our community, but the suspects are also part of our community. These are crimes of opportunity."

Illustration by Brian Hubble

Illustration by Brian Hubble/Photo by Jon Gardiner

As Graves notes, the most prevalent form of reported crime occurs when items of value—laptops, iPods, book bags, wallets—are left unattended. Two locations that pop up with frequency on the police logs are Wilson Recreation Center and Brodie Gym. Even though an ample number of lockers is available, gym-goers are responsible for bringing their own locks, an extra step that many forego, instead leaving their valuables unsecured while they hit the treadmills or play a game of pickup basketball. DUPD's crime-prevention manager, David A. Williams, says that very few members of the Duke community take advantage of the department's frequently publicized free engraving service that makes it easier to identify lost or stolen property.

Graves says there are a number of ways for concerned parents and others to stay apprised of criminal activity that occurs on or near campus. DUPD distributes daily e-mail messages through an automated listserv, and posts weekly reports on its DUPD website. Duke also compiles and distributes statistics in compliance with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, a federal law that requires colleges and universities across the U.S. to provide information about crime.

Though the majority of reported crimes are relatively minor incidents, two major events accentuated the need for Duke to think more strategically about campus safety and emergency preparedness. In the spring of 2006, allegations of an off-campus rape by Duke students exploded into a racially charged, nationally followed case that has come to be known simply as "lacrosse." As the tangled mess slowly began to unravel, senior administrators identified a number of areas for improvement, including the university's internal and external lines of communication. One year later, the Virginia Tech massacre served as a grim warning that preparing for worst-case scenarios should be an ongoing imperative for any institution.

Like many universities, Duke responded to the Virginia Tech tragedy by accelerating safety improvements already in the works, and implementing a host of others. A detailed emergency-management response plan includes a communications component that spells out a chain of command for alerting members of the Duke community—students, faculty and staff members, trustees, parents, alumni, and visitors—as well as the Durham community and other local, state, and national agencies (law enforcement, media), depending on the nature of the crisis.

Over the summer, seven forty-foot-high warning sirens were installed in key locations on East, West, and Central campuses, and in proximity to the medical center. In the case of a serious emergency—an armed or dangerous person, for example, or a chemical explosion or tornado sighting—a high-decibel tone, audible for up to one-half mile, is followed by a live or recorded message explaining what is happening and what people should do. The sirens, along with emergency text and e-mail message notification, are tested on an ongoing basis. An emergency website launched in May provides timely updates, contact information and links, and options for subscribing to RSS feeds and text messaging.

Duke also hired emergency-management consultants to conduct training exercises that brought together top-level administrators from around campus to deal collectively with a simulated crisis. In one scenario, a transformer explodes on Erwin Road near the medical center, knocking out power to broad sections of campus. Another virtual crisis situation—a LifeFlight helicopter crashes into Wilson Recreation Center— was devised by the Office of News and Communications to test communications responsiveness.


Illustration by Brian Hubble


Illustration by Brian Hubble/Photo by Jon Gardiner

As a direct result of these conversations and case studies, Duke and Stanford University forged a reciprocal agreement to guest host each other's website should either university lose its Internet servers. Stanford, like many California institutions, is further along in emergency planning because of the higher risks of earthquakes and wildfires. From a practical standpoint, it also makes sense to collaborate with an institution on the opposite side of the country, lest a natural disaster or terrorist attack cripple an entire region.

"We are doing really well in terms of how we alert the Duke community in the case of an emergency," says university secretary and vice president Richard Riddell, who chairs the two-year-old emergency-management council and serves as a kind of air traffic controller for monitoring real and potential safety issues around campus. (Monte Brown is Riddell's counterpart at the Duke University Health System, which consists of the medical school and School of Nursing, research institutes and centers, and clinics and patient-care operations.)

But Riddell notes that "we still have work to do to let students, faculty, and employees know what their role is, and what they need to do, not just in an emergency but as part of their day-to-day routine." For example, an Associated Press report earlier this year found that college students are slow to sign up for emergency text messages. To increase the likelihood that Duke students will sign up, campus safety officials sent letters to parents encouraging them to make sure their sons and daughters took this simple step.

Paul Grantham, assistant vice president for communications services, says that no single method of notifying the entire Duke community can be effective. "Our communications strategy is built on redundancy," he says. "We have low-tech options, like the public-address system or having residence-life staff knock on doors, and we have high-tech options, such as text messaging and RSS feeds. One of the things we want to track is how people first hear that there is a drill or an actual emergency, so we can refine and improve how we notify people."

Technology allows instantaneous communication, but speed has its drawbacks. When an undergraduate student died in his dorm last year, student-affairs staff members and police officers arrived on the scene within minutes of receiving a 911 call from one of the young man's friends. By the time they got there, students had begun gathering outside the dorm, and were already texting messages to their friends and acquaintances about what had happened—or what they had heard had happened from second-hand sources. University officials were compelled to call the family on the spot, without knowing all the facts, because details of the student's death (accurate or not) were already being disseminated. Grantham says that ensuring messages are both timely and accurate can be a delicate balancing act.

"We send out what we know as soon as we know it," he says. "But in an emergency situation, we aren't going to know everything at once. So when we send out those updates, we want to be very clear about telling people what we know to be fact, as well as telling them what we don't know." Case in point: Last spring a steam line ruptured at the Levine Science Research Center (LSRC), killing longtime Duke employee Rayford Cofer. In addition to e-mail messages sent immediately to members of the campus community, and an alert message posted on the front page of the Duke Today website, the emergency website posted updates, providing details on how the building's systems were being tested and repaired, and informing LSRC employees when it was safe to report back to work.

Protecting students

Illustration by Brian Hubble

Illustration by Brian Hubble/Photo by Jon Gardiner

In theory, college is a time for young adults to express their independence, become responsible adults, and learn, through trial and error, how to contribute in positive ways to the larger community in which they live. In practice, that's not always a smooth process.

In the 1960s and 1970s, college students began objecting to the notion of in loco parentis, whereby institutions imposed curfews and social standards on young people away from home for the first time, the better to keep them from harm. Rather than view such rules as benign safeguards, students argued that such measures were infantilizing and implied a lack of maturity and good judgment. From both legal and moral viewpoints, most colleges and universities concur that in loco parentis is not the ideal model for helping teenagers become autonomous adults.

In the last two decades, though, students who chafed at in loco parentis became parents themselves. With their own children heading off to college, these parents want assurance that safety precautions and safeguards are in place to protect them from harm. And even though the trend in higher education is for more robust student-affairs staffs and student-life services, coordinating those efforts is a challenge. At Virginia Tech, gunman Seung-Hui Cho's unstable behavior and actions leading up to the shooting had come to the attention of officials in judicial and student affairs, the counseling center, and university police, but none of these agencies shared or escalated their concerns with counterparts across campus, believing (incorrectly) that to do so would be a breach of student privacy.

At Duke, these departments are in constant communication. On the student-affairs side, Sue Wasiolek, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students, convenes a Monday-morning meeting during the academic year at which various student-affairs officers review events from the previous week. At any given meeting, between fifteen and twenty people attend, including deans who oversee East, West, Central, and off-campus student life; representatives from judicial affairs and fraternity and sorority life; an alcohol- and substance-abuse-prevention manager; and members of the residential-life and housing staff.

Wasiolek '76, M.H.A. '78, LL.M. '93 begins each meeting by asking for an update from the person just coming off his or her shift as dean on call—a position that rotates among staff members, assuring that there is a student-affairs staff member available twenty-four hours a day to address urgent or emergency situations that involve students.

At an early-September meeting, the first since this year's first-year students arrived on campus, the report includes a faulty smoke detector in a residence hall (emergency maintenance was notified), a call from a resident adviser wanting to know if it was permissible for students to smoke a hookah on the outdoor patio (as long as they weren't smoking anything illegal, she was told), and a distraught young man who took an overdose of Motrin after his girlfriend broke up with him (he was taken to the emergency room and referred for counseling).

Other cases before the group involve more comprehensive supervision. A second-year student who had earned a reputation for partying hard her freshman year had assured her academic dean at the start of fall classes that she was now on the straight and narrow. But according to the young woman's residence coordinator, she had shown up for an afternoon dorm meeting with beer in hand, and at the weekend's tailgate party before the football game, another dean had spotted the woman in full party mode.

In this case, as in others involving students of concern, the young woman's name is added to a database maintained by Amy Powell, the student-affairs case manager. A position created just this year, the case manager coordinates the efforts of student-focused campus entities to ensure an integrated approach to addressing a spectrum of needs a student might have.

For example, the loss of a parent or close family member could have an impact on a student's academic performance, his mental health, and even his financial-aid package should the family's income fluctuate. In a situation like that, Powell would collaborate with the student's academic deans, who alert the student's professors to the situation; professional staff in Counseling and Psychological Services, to which the student might be referred; and the financial aid and registrar's office.

First-year students receive the most supervision, including faculty members living in residence halls, academic advisers, resident advisers, residence coordinators, and first-year advisory counselors. Housekeeping staff members have also been trained to watch for clues that indicate unhealthy behavior—the frequent presence of vomit in a bathroom used by women, for example, could indicate a student struggling with bulimia.

"One of the things we tell parents during orientation is to contact us if something doesn't seem right," says Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs. "Sometimes when parents have concerns—their son or daughter hasn't called in a few days and they usually call every day, or they sound sad on the phone—they don't want their children to think they are interfering. We can maintain that parent's confidentiality while still checking to see if everything's okay. We might ask the resident adviser to stop by the student's room, or ask that student's roommate how things are going between them. We take elaborate precautions to mitigate risk."

Senior Daniel DeVougas is in his third year as a residence adviser (RA). He says he likes being a mentor and sounding board for first-year students who are juggling new academic and social pressures. "RAs play a unique role because students see us as one of them," he says. "I've had students complain about the party scene, and I can tell them from firsthand experience that not everyone drinks, and that there is a social scene that involves people getting together to cook or make music, not just to drink."

There is a somewhat predictable arc to the experiences and emotions first-year students encounter, he says. "Students arrive at Duke ready to take on the world. They know they want to be premed or prelaw. They all go to the party scene early on; some keep going while others focus more on their studies. Then around midterms, they get a C on a paper or a test and they think their world is about to end. I am there to reassure them that this happens to almost everyone. I can tell them where to go for help. One of the most powerful things about being an RA is that I'm not pushing policy. I'm providing a positive role model."

Illustration by Brian Hubble

Illustration by Brian Hubble/Photo by Jon Gardiner

Off-campus dangers

From her perspective as director of student development for the Graduate School, Tomalei Vess Ph.D. '02 agrees that the university provides an impressive array of support services for undergraduates. She is less sanguine about resources provided to the thousands of students enrolled in graduate and professional programs.

"About one-third of our Graduate School enrollment is international students, and many of those are coming to the United States for the first time," she says. "Nearly all of our students live off campus"—the number of beds for graduate students on Central Campus has dwindled from a high of 200 to seventy-four. "And because they generally don't have a lot of money, they don't have cars, and they look for apartments that may be cheap but that aren't necessarily safe, they are easy targets for crime."

Vess says that last year's murder of engineering doctoral student Abhijit Mahato in his off-campus apartment underscored the importance of keeping all students safe. "When we conduct recruiting, we frequently get asked about transportation and housing. We have had applicants who were offered admission but who decided to go somewhere else, because other universities have more on-campus housing for graduate students and better public transportation. These are not insignificant issues."

At the urging of the Graduate and Professional Student Council, Duke this fall added a free shuttle bus that travels in a continuous loop to apartment buildings along LaSalle Street, Morreene Road, and Campus Walk Avenue, an area with a high concentration of students living off campus. The service, which provides transportation for residents living in fifteen complexes, operates from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday.

After hours, members of the Duke community, including graduate students, can call the university-operated Safe Rides to get where they need to go, whether that is a remote parking lot or an off-campus apartment. Designed to supplement the regular bus service between and through East, West, and Central campuses, the Safe Rides program underwent a comprehensive evaluation of its services last spring, partly in response to student complaints, to analyze peak demand and rider responsiveness. As a result, the number of vehicles in the Safe Rides fleet has doubled from four to eight. And after months of negotiations, Duke is poised to enter into an agreement with Zipcars, a national car-lending service. By as early as the spring semester, anyone who joins the program can reserve and borrow a car by the hour or day, much like the Duke Bikes program.

 Improving safety off campus is also a pressing issue for many of Durham's property managers who cater to students. At a quarterly meeting in September, about a dozen owner/managers and members of Duke's student-affairs staff convened to discuss a range of issues, from how to evict problem students to Duke's role in prosecuting people charged with crimes against students. One owner, whose company has been in business for three decades, and in whose apartment complex Mahato lived, expressed frustration that students may not report crime because they think nothing will come of it, or if they do and someone is caught, it takes so long for the case to wind its way through court that the student has graduated and, understandably, does not want to travel back to Durham to testify against the accused. As a result, the same criminals continue to commit crimes.

"Can't Duke play more of a role in serving as a victim's advocate in the courts?" she asked.

Moneta noted that the university "can't position itself as having a greater need than other parts of Durham," particularly those areas with higher crime rates. He assured the group that Duke officials do follow criminal cases very closely, and work with the local law-enforcement agencies and the attorney general's office to expedite prosecution when appropriate and feasible.

"If we try to address these problems on the back end, it's going to be an uphill battle that we will lose," he said. "We believe that we are your partners in keeping our students and communities safe. If you have concerns about safety, call us. If you have problems with exuberant partyers, call us. We are here to help you."  

Law and order

Reciprocity between community partners extends to the Duke and Durham police departments as well. The two agencies have a concurrent jurisdiction agreement, which means that Duke can ask the Durham police for help with crimes on campus, and the Duke police can respond to crime involving members of the Duke community who live in surrounding neighborhoods.

When someone dials 911 on a campus land line, the call is immediately routed to the DUPD emergency call center, which dispatches Duke police officers and, when warranted, responders from Duke University Emergency Medical Services (EMS). If the call involves a serious or complicated circumstance—murder or accidental death, an explosion or fire—the DUPD alerts the Durham Police and may request additional resources such as crime-scene detectives or arson investigators. Emergency 911 calls made on cell phones are routed to the Durham Police, who alert Duke officials when the incident involves a Duke-affiliated individual.

In the past two years, both agencies have brought on new leadership. In Durham, Chief Jose Lopez has launched a number of crime-prevention and crime-fighting initiatives, and pledged greater accountability and responsiveness to the community.

At Duke, Aaron Graves is pursuing accreditation of the campus police department through the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. The voluntary but rigorous process can take up to three years, and requires institutions to meet more than 200 national safety standards. Lopez and Graves are also addressing the problem of recruiting and retaining qualified officers; both departments pay to train new recruits, who, once certified and sworn in, often move on seeking higher pay or the faster pace of an urban setting.

A Chronicle series last spring implied that the high turnover rate at Duke was an aberration and cause for alarm. In fact, it's a challenge faced by departments nationwide as colleges and universities strive to increase their security forces, and as ever-shrinking municipal budgets keep officer salaries low.

Student perception of Duke and Durham police is mixed, in part because encounters with either agency are usually a consequence of dangerous or illegal activity. "When Duke students are confronted by the Durham Police or ALE [Alcohol Law Enforcement] officers or even the Durham County Sheriff's department, it is oftentimes the result of behavior issues involving alcohol," says Graves.

"When that happens, there is a perception that the Duke police should come to their aid and relief, that they should somehow get a pass. But as sworn police officers, we have an obligation to enforce the laws of the state, the orders of the city, and any other federal laws that apply."

Still, he says, both city and campus law-enforcement officers have a fair amount of discretion in how they handle a particular incident. "On any given day we'll get a call from the Durham police about an intoxicated Duke student. We have the discretion not to arrest him, to take him back to his dorm or put him in detox overnight. This is a common occurrence, but not one that's highly publicized, because if it was, it would read like, well, here's another privileged Duke student who's getting yet another break."

Ben Applebome '09 is the director of Duke EMS. Originally a student initiative administered through student affairs, Duke EMS became part of the DUPD in 2003. It continues to be an all-volunteer student organization that serves as an emergency medical first responder.

Applebome joined Duke EMS the fall of his freshman year, has volunteered with several emergency service agencies in his home state of New York, and volunteers with North Carolina's Orange County EMS. From his perspective working alongside the Duke police force for the last four years, Applebome says he has been impressed by the level of dedication that the DUPD officers bring to their jobs.

"I have tremendous respect for the Duke police," he says. "I think most students interact with the police when something bad happens, but I get to work with them every day. They do a fantastic job."

When Applebome is told about the call from the alumnus inquiring about safety, he smiles. "Is Duke safe? We can always do more, but to some extent there is only so much you can do."

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