String of assaults raises safety concerns at U of Mby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — A recent string of crimes on and near the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus has raised some concerns about public safety.
Two university students were assaulted early Sunday morning a few blocks from campus. One student was punched in the face and her car keys and wallet was stolen. The other student was assaulted as well. Both student were treated and released at the scene of the crime.
Campus safety officials understand the concern, but they also say crime has gone down dramatically on campus and in surrounding neighborhoods in recent years.
Two nights a week Oliver Liu sets aside his homework, and puts on his University of Minnesota security uniform.
As one of the university's student monitors, the 19-year-old sophomore makes sure classroom and office doors are closed and locked in about a dozen buildings on campus.
The other part of Liu's job concerns the safety of his fellow students.
Liu offers advice, and when he can, he offers help.
"Stay in well lit areas. If you can try to arrange escorts with friends," he says. "And if you're out of luck we're always here to provide escorts if you need it."
University security monitors provide free escorts to students or employees who don't feel safe walking by themselves across campus or in nearby neighborhoods.
Safety officials say they usually get 20 requests for escorts on any given night. After a robbery or assault is reported, those requests jump to 50 or more, at least for a few nights, and there have been some high profile attacks recently.
Several students have been robbed in neighborhoods surrounding the university. One student was stabbed during a robbery attempt near campus. A female student was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by three men in March during an off-campus attack.
And in January one student was shot and wounded on campus the same night two other students were robbed at gunpoint.
It was the randomness of that attack that still scares a lot of students.
Jenna McCullough says even her mother is concerned.
"She's really worried about my brother coming here next year," McCullough said. "Since that shooting happened right outside the dorms I know she's really worried about that."
McCullough, a 21-year-old junior, is spending a warm spring evening sitting on the grass with two friends on the campus mall. They all say the recent crimes are a good reminder for students not walk alone at night.
Cell biology major Nate Damaschke says he feels safe on campus, even at night, but he doesn't feel as secure in his neighborhood near campus.
"I guess when I'm getting closer to my house I take out my headphones and keep my ears alert. I keep on my toes," he says.
Students are also kept on their toes by electronic alerts from university officials. They're sent out anytime there's a major crime on or near campus.
The email and text message alerts go to as many as 80,000 people associated with the university.
So far this year, University of Minnesota Police Chief Greg Hestness has sent out almost half as many alerts than he usually sends out in an entire year.
"Since about 2006, there 12, 13, 14 for the entire year that I issued. This year we're at seven."
Hestness says those alerts, and the resulting media coverage, give the impression that crime is up at the university. Hestness says that's not the case.
The university's statistics show major crimes are down 20 percent so far over last year. Since 2006 there has been a 66 percent decline in assaults and robberies on campus.
"Statistically it's been a marked improvement over the last number of years, but we don't rest on any laurels in that regard," Hestness says.
This year, one category of violent crime, aggravated assault, has edged up both on and off campus. It appears to be on track to top last year's record lows. Hestness is watching those figures closely, but says it's too early in the year to determine any trend.
Regardless of the stats, students worry when they see a fellow student become a crime victim.
Sarah Shook is a student representative to the university's board of regents. Shook is also president-elect of the U's student association.
She says students feel fairly safe on their well-lit, well-patrolled campus. But she thinks better lighting is needed in the urban Minneapolis neighborhoods around campus.
"Lighting is crucial to feeling safe and it's a very long and complex process with the city," Shook says. "It's definitely something we want to put our focus on."
Shook would also like to see a change to the escort program on campus. She says students would be more likely to ask a monitor to walk with them, especially if they've been drinking, if they weren't dressed like police officers.
- Morning Edition, 04/28/2010, 7:40 a.m.