Getting ready for school at the University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville took on new meaning for students in early September.
This semester they were armed with more than the traditional notebooks and pens. They carried Mace, knives and baseball bats - anything they could find to protect themselves against a serial killer who was plaguing their campuses.Thanks to a blitz of media attention, these students were aware of the danger that was lurking outside the classroom or near the dorm - but not before five students were viciously murdered. With a suspect in custody, life at the schools has returned to normal - or almost.
Each student on these campuses and on campuses all over the country has been changed by the serial killings.
Students once naive to the threat of crime and violence at school are now acutely aware that university walls and college gates do not necessarily guarantee safety.
Luckily, events like the one that spread fear and panic through these two Florida schools are rare. However, the incidence of crime on American college and university campuses is on the increase, a trend that is reflected in the rise of overall crime nationwide.
Colleges and universities, however, are reluctant to divulge the type and number of crimes committed against their students.
This should not be surprising. While they may aspire to enlighten America's youth, institutions of higher learning are, after all, in a competitive marketplace - concerned with attracting and keeping students.
Rarely do parents or students consider the possibility of campus crime when they are choosing a school idyllically pictured in a college brochure.
But evidence suggests that we should not only question crime statistics for colleges and universities, we should insist that they be provided to prospective students, current students and employees as well.
The factors that contribute to crime at American colleges and universities are easy to identify: inadequate security with forces unequipped to deal with the threat of modern violence; escalating drug activity and alcohol abuse; and carelessness by students.
The treatment is equally evident. In addition to providing a more comprehensive security plan, including patrols, escort services, lighted walkways and door locks, schools must assess the need for greater emphasis on information, including providing crime rates to potential and current students and employees.
While establishing a dialogue among students, the administration and local law enforcement authorities will not prevent crime, it will alert students to the potential for crime and teach them how to act responsibly and with foresight.
Congress is becoming involved in the move to require colleges and universities to provide crime statistics. As part of this effort, I am supporting the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act.
This bill requires all colleges and universities receiving federal aid to submit campus crime statistics to the FBI and to provide a description of the type of security offered. In addition, the bill would compel schools to send the reports to students, employees and to applicants for enrollment or employment.
Congress is not alone in its desire to see safer campuses. Parental groups are having an impact and are getting legislation passed that requires colleges to release campus crime information.
Pennsylvania, Florida, Tennessee and Louisiana have passed laws that deal with campus security. In addition, 21 other states are in some stage of enacting legislation on this issue.
By requiring schools to disclose crime rates in conjunction with efforts directed at education awareness and prevention, we can help make American campuses safer. It's about time.
(Sen. Richard Shelby is a Democrat from Alabama.)