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Narrow focus fails student safety

I USED to be terrified of the Bogeyman. As my older friends described him, he was an escaped convict who wore a patch over one eye and would hide under children's beds, waiting until it was dark to jump out and attack. Of course, I got over my fear as I grew older. I realized, as most people eventually do, that most threats to my safety don't come from the Bogeyman. They come from my actions and the actions of those around me.

We would all be advised to take a similar approach to student safety. Discussion focuses too much on Bogeyman-type crime: We hear "don't walk home alone after dark" perhaps more than any other warning. We would benefit from shifting our attention to the more serious threats to our well-being: ourselves and each other.

To be sure, there are still bad people out there. Random crime is by no means gone from the list of things we have to fear. Only it should be a lot lower on the list than it sometimes is.

Of course, we hear the horror stories -- a number of incidents of seemingly random assaults and robberies have been reported on Grounds over the last few months. But what don't we hear about? The stories that appear on the nightly news are, by design, the most sensational and unbelievable stories. We pay attention to them specifically because they're atypical. In doing so, we lose sight of the kinds of things that are more common, and therefore more likely to harm us.

The National Crime Victimization Survey estimates that less than half of all crimes -- and less than a quarter of all sexual assaults -- are committed by strangers ( The sexual assault statistic is particularly relevant, as sexual assault is one of the top safety concerns for college-age people, more so than for other age groups.

If over three-fourths of sexual assaults are committed by acquaintances; most rapists aren't hiding in the bushes, waiting for women to walk home alone after dark. The majority of potential rapists are people we know, people we see in broad daylight. They don't wear patches over their eyes and hide in the dark. They're in our classes and walk amongst us.

This certainly doesn't make walking home alone late at night any safer. But being protective of our safety needs to involve much more than encouraging students to take the Escort Service. Avoiding the dark walk home alone won't do anything to prevent the majority of sexual assaults. Other measures will.

We don't have any control over would-be attackers. We do have some control over ourselves and over the risks we take. This doesn't mean that we're responsible for anything bad that might happen to us. It does mean that we can take steps to minimize risk by making good decisions about the situations in which we put ourselves.

The idea behind not walking alone in the dark is that putting ourselves in such a dangerous situation is stupid. Yet we do not have the same aversion to equally dangerous situations when they involve potential assaults at the hands of acquaintances.

This is understandable -- naturally, it's much easier to feel threatened by the imagined Bogeyman lurking in the shadows than by someone you know. The difficult -- but necessary -- action is to recognize that acquaintances often present a greater safety threat.

Take another example: Yes, it's possible that some student will get attacked on his way home from the library next weekend. But during the same weekend, it's far more likely that someone will get hurt from an alcohol-related car crash. We fear the former when we should fear the latter at least as much.

We can spend all the time we want trying to prevent random assaults and robberies -- and doing so is certainly desirable. But "student safety" is just empty rhetoric until we face up to addressing things like date rape and drunk driving as well.

Admittedly, this area of our safety is harder to address. We can't just throw more money, more police or an expanded Escort Service at the problem. Combating these sorts of threats to our safety will have to involve education -- police can't mandate good decision-making. To avoid these kinds of risks, students have to not put themselves in bad situations.

Such an education push is worth the added effort if we are committed to protecting students. This education depends on students talking to each other. Don't just warn your friend not to walk home alone. Remember also to keep him or her from drinking to the point of intoxication and going home with a date he or she doesn't know well. Be as committed to preventing your friend from driving drunk as you are to making sure he locks his door at night.

We need to stop looking over shoulders for the Bogeyman following us in the dark. Doing so prevents us from seeing that the real threats to our safety are often right in front of us.

(Bryan Maxwell is a Cavalier Daily associate editor.)


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