But despite the promising news, criminal incidences like rape, theft and drug and alcohol use remain a nagging problem at the university and others like it across the country.
Sex offenses on campus
In 2010, WCU hit a four-year high with five reported sex offenses on campus. In this past year, that number was three.
In all three reported incidents, the female student knew the alleged perpetrator.
In one case, allegations involved an offense by a student’s ex-boyfriend, but no charges were pressed.
The other two incidents from 2011 involved the same man, who was an acquaintance of the victims in the dormitories. One female student reported he forced her to perform oral sex. After the first incident became public and the suspect was arrested, another student came forward and said he had raped her.
The perpetrator, James Derrickson, 18, took a plea deal for crimes against nature, which included a suspended sentence. He was also kicked off campus.
WCU Police Chief Ernie Hudson said while campus police take every report seriously, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Under the campus crime reporting rules, statistics must include any report made regardless of a conviction. And, offenses such as groping can be lumped in the same category as rape.
“Somebody who is uneducated would say ‘gosh, they had three rapes that year,’” Hudson said. “But that’s not the case.”
Colleges have universal guidelines for how to document and classify crimes reported on campuses. They must compile the data each year in a publicly-available report, called a Clery report. It is named for freshman Jeanne Clery, who was raped and then killed on a private college campus in Pennsylvania in 1986. Because the incident went unreported laws were passed requiring transparency.
When comparing reported sex offenses in 2011 at universities across North Carolina, WCU is on par statistically with other institutions. That same year, Appalachian State University reported four; Brevard College, with a student population of about 700, reported two; and University of North Carolina-Asheville reported three.
WCU’s rural location — essentially as an island of students in the Appalachian Mountains — can be deceiving, said student body president Alecia Paige.
“A common perception is its safer because it is in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “But there’s also an element of danger — a unsafe situations can happen anywhere at any time, all it takes is a student who makes a poor decision.”
Paige offered another perspective on the crime statistics, that they may in fact be under-reported because of a victim’s tendency to be ashamed and shoulder the blame herself. She said, through friends and personally, she knows of several rape victims who are students but is not sure if they necessarily reported the crime.
“Rape is disproportionally unreported,” Paige said. “Many students internalize and accept the responsibility — the day after a big party, they might not want to go to police because they feel like they put themselves in a bad situation.”
But, Hudson sees the low number of convictions for sexual offenses as a good sign, indicating perhaps that actual offenses are less prevalent than the numbers in the Clery report suggest.
“Those numbers are just what people are reporting to us. That doesn’t mean they were provable in a court of law or the victim followed through with prosecution,” Hudson said.
Carelessness or crime wave?
Drugs and underage alcohol use top the campus crime stats. After that, burglaries are the highest reported crime on campus. Each year since 2008, the WCU consistently reports between 20 and 40 burglaries.
The prized possession: laptops, iPads, cell phones and other valuable items left unattended, likely in an unlocked dorm room or car. The campus police chief said even though it’s a drag to lose an expensive electronic device or other prized possession, students generally are safe from the type of robberies that go down with armed gunmen in ski masks.
“I can’t remember last time one of our students’ doors were broken in,” Hudson said.
Instead, the theft tends to be subtler.
For example in 2011, one suspect was caught wandering around the dormitory rooms and taking money from student’s wallets left on their desks until one female student, who had left for a moment to get something from the vending machines caught him in the act.
Another student had his iPod Touch stolen from his unattended golf bag, but the police were able to locate the thief selling it on Craigslist.
Yet, a little bit of prevention goes a long way. Hudson said several weeks after being named chief of police in 2010, the father of a female student, who was the victim of theft three separate times, drove from Charlotte to ask Hudson why his daughter kept getting robbed.
When the father arrived at the police station looking to quarrel about why the police couldn’t keep the campus safe for his daughter, Hudson asked him a simple question: could the father persuade his daughter to close and lock her door when she leaves her room?
“You don’t want to blame the victim,” Hudson said. “But we have a lot of students who leave their cars unlocked or their doors open.”
Paige, the student president, explained her philosophy on studying at the generally safe, but potentially dangerous, WCU campus.
“Even if I lived in Mayberry, I couldn’t be too careful,” Paige said. “Nobody is going to walk up to me and mug me for my wallet, but if I left an iPod in the middle of the cafeteria, someone might pick it up.”
Booze, pot and Adderall
One crime trend that may not bode well for the college party scene is the rise in underage alcohol and drug arrests since 2009. In 2011, there were 55 alcohol arrests, more than four times the number there were in 2009. Drug arrests also rose but by a lesser amount.
Although the rise in arrests coincides with when Chief Hudson took control of the department, he claims he is not necessarily responsible, but rather, alcohol has become a hot topic on campus, which has heightened awareness and subsequently enforcement.
“The abuse of alcohol certainly has much more public notice and attention than it did five years ago,” Hudson said. “More people notifying the police, and also the officers are more vigilant and sensitive to the issue.”
But, the good news for underage college boozers is that almost all alcohol-related infractions are handled through the university’s internal judicial system. The process is designed to keep students out of the real court system, yet still providing for learning experience through fines and community service.
The university carries strict rules regarding where and when 21-and-older students, as well as non-students, can drink on campus. It’s usually relegated to special events like football games. But if you decide to have a beer on campus outside of those designated activities, you could be asking for trouble.
“If you come on my campus and you’re drinking, that’s a liquor law violation,” said Hudson.
Paige, who is a senior at WCU, said she has noticed the university taking alcohol offenses more seriously since she first started as a freshman.
“The campus police has definitely cracked down,” she said. “It’s definitely not taken lightly. It’s getting more serious by the semester, and students are starting to see the picture.”
And while alcohol is the drink of choice for many college kids, Adderall as a study drug is finding its way into the halls of WCU.
Several students interviewed commented on how it helps them, or their friends, focus in class and during high stress times such as finals. Yet, apart from the sporadic LSD and speed encounter, the drug of choice for WCU students is still marijuana, Hudson said.