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The New York Times September 10, 2010 Preparing Children to Be Safe at College
Last Updated: 09/10/2010

Money can buy many things to help children excel academically, like tutors and private school educations. But as those children go off to college, the one thing otherwise protective parents typically do not spend money on is making sure their children do not become victims of a crime.

One reason is cost. The price of protection ranges from consultations billed at several hundred dollars an hour to Ostrander International’s security assessment and training program, mainly for the children of international business executives, royalty and celebrities, which starts at $41,000 for the first year.

Parents may also believe that security at college is not something they have to worry about.

But just because you are paying tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars for your child’s education does not mean the university is a safe place.

A report released this week by Insite Security is sure to shake parents’ confidence. The security firm analyzed crime statistics on and around the campuses of the eight Ivy League colleges as well as Duke, Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago. This study was intriguing because it looked not only at the on-campus statistics that colleges are required to report, it also took into account crime in the areas where students socialize off campus. (The off-campus statistics were drawn from the F.B.I.’s uniform crime report.)

The Insite report, whose data goes only to 2008, said three-quarters of the colleges and their surrounding areas had sex offense rates that were 83 percent higher than the national rape average, with Dartmouth having the highest rate. It said that Harvard had the highest rate of burglary among the 12.

“Keeping kids safe or making a wise decision about where your kids go to school is more complicated than reviewing the police log at the college security office,” said Christopher Falkenberg, president of Insite.

In response to the report, Sylvia Spears, dean of Dartmouth, said, “Increased reporting is not necessarily an indicator of increased sexual violence on campus but may be indicative of better education about sexual violence and increased awareness of various services and offices on a campus that are available to a victim.”

A spokesman for Harvard said, “It is important to note that how property crimes are classified and reported varies from school to school, and when you look at property crime statistics as a whole, Harvard does not lead in the rankings.”

For prominent families, the costs of a security plan to reduce these risks are part of life, but for most affluent families, such security is prohibitively expensive — even though their children may be just as susceptible to crime.

Several security advisers I spoke with offered advice to wealthy families contemplating security plans while also providing tips to parents of more modest means.

TOP THREATS Curtis Ostrander, the founder of Ostrander International and former vice president for risk management and public safety at Cornell, said the biggest threat he sought to counter was students’ belief that nothing was going to happen to them.

His business focuses on the top targets for campus crime: international students and children from affluent homes. It might seem obvious that someone adjusting to a new culture while getting used to college could run into problems. But children from families who are upper-middle class and higher on the wealth ladder are often naïve about personal security, and that makes them targets for theft, alcohol-related crimes and sexual assault.

“If you grew up in a poorer neighborhood, you’d be more aware of someone coming up behind you and stealing your bag,” Mr. Ostrander said.

He added that the very rich were the least prepared: “Having security growing up makes it worse because they never had to consider the threats.”

Mr. Falkenberg said a new scam illustrated this problem. It starts with an attractive, older woman pretending to fall in love with a wealthy male student in the hope of getting pregnant, if not married, and laying claim to his family’s money.

“They’re dweebishly nerdy kids, and the story is always the same,” he said. “It’s really hard because you have to tell the kid this is not the love of his life.”

STUDENT RESPONSIBILITY Regardless of the threat, the key is to work with students before they leave for college. And this is where the fees for one-on-one preparation start to climb.

Mr. Ostrander, for example, has a psychologist and a self-defense instructor on staff, and he will work personally with the student in the home country or on campus. Thomas Ruskin, president of CMP Protective and Investigative Group, said his agents had accompanied clients’ children on trips in the guise of tour guides or drivers, but had also done simple things like monitoring tracking technology on their cellphones.

“It’s about teaching them how to leave the nest but also to teach them what they’ve been protected from,” Mr. Ruskin said.

Short of hiring an expensive consultant, parents themselves can do more to prepare children for what can happen on campus. For male students, the main worries are being beaten up or involved in an alcohol-related crime, and for women, the concerns center on sexual assault.

Yet Mr. Ostrander says parents usually do not do enough to prepare children for theft and computer scams. These include the infamous Nigerian prince asking for money and more personalized scams devised from the abundance of personal information on the Web. “Some of us say that’s just common sense, but not for people without a lot of life experience,” he said.

PARENTAL ANXIETY Thinking about what could happen to your child is enough to send the most level-headed parent into overprotective mode. Yet the experts offered some simple steps for parents to take. Encourage your daughter to use the buddy system when she goes to a party and have a plan if she or a friend drinks too much. Another is to use campus escorts at night.

Even with prominent children, less can be more. “It’s a little bit of a give and take with security,” Mr. Ruskin said. “It’s a necessary evil, but you don’t want to go overboard and then you’re smothering the person.”

The worst thing a parent can do for a child, the experts agreed, is send a bodyguard to class. The same goes for the middle-class parent repeatedly warning a child not to drink. That could lead to worse behavior.

“We don’t say, ‘Don’t drink,’ ” Mr. Ostrander said. “We say, ‘If you drink, here are some of the possible problems.’ ” He added, “I teach these kids in classes, but these are the same skills they will use the rest of their lives to be safe.”

And that is what any parent wants from college.

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