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NORMAL — With young people heading to college, including many who haven't been on their own before, this can be a dangerous time.

But, overall, college campuses are safe places and Illinois State University Police Chief Aaron Woodruff says the best self-defense is common sense.

That common sense includes being aware of your surroundings, watching out for each other and not letting friends walk home alone, he said.

Many schools, including ISU, Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington and Millikin University in Decatur have programs that provide walking escorts at night on campus and a few have ride services, too.

Karla Carney-Hall, IWU vice president of student affairs, reminds people that “sometimes safety isn't convenient.”

The safest route from point A to point B might not be the shortest and most direct but rather the one that's well lit, near emergency phones or more traveled, she said.

It also is important to be aware of your surroundings.

If you are on the phone or are listening to music through earbuds, you might not notice someone coming up behind you, said Carney-Hall

IWU is among those that offer “active bystander” training to teach people how to intervene. Sometimes all it takes to diffuse a situation is to step up and ask, “Is everything OK?”

“We are a community,” said Carney-Hall. “Do something when you see something that isn't right.”

Woodruff said, “The most common problem, which is the underlying thing that leads to everything else, is alcohol.”

Carney-Hall agreed and said IWU attempts to combat the problem through education and enforcement, making sure students recognize the signs of alcohol poisoning and understand how intoxication affects judgment.

The “ripple effect” of overindulging can lead to vandalism, physical aggression, sexual assault or academic problems, she said.

There is “a direct correlation between alcohol use and GPA,” she added.

Many schools offer self-defense courses, and all are required provide information about serious crimes, including sexual assault cases, under the Clery Disclosure of Campus Security and Campus Crime Statistics Act.

Although assaults involving strangers do occur, Woodruff said, more often such assaults involving people who are acquainted with each other.

With the rise of social media and use of apps such as Tinder to meet, problems arise when two people don't have the same understanding of what the encounter is going to be, warned Woodruff.

Another problem with social media is “the news and the misinformation travels so quickly now,” he said.

If there is an actual imminent threat, ISU will send a notice via its Redbird Alert system. Other colleges and universities have similar systems for emergency alerts, including tornado warnings. Parents can sign up, too.

Too often, students in residence halls treat their dorm rooms like their bedrooms at home, said Woodruff. He advises students to treat it more like a hotel room, locking the door whenever they leave, even if they're just going down the hall.

“Theft is primarily a crime of opportunity,” said Woodruff. “The good news is our property crimes have been lower for the last few years. … I'm hoping part of that is the education.”

Residence halls at ISU, IWU and elsewhere provide security by requiring ID cards to access a building. But those safety measures can be thwarted by people “tailgating” — following closely behind someone else who enters the building lawfully, or even someone holding a door open for another, said Carney-Hall and Woodruff.

“We are so polite with one another,” said Carney-Hall. “Be guarded about who is part of our community.”

Woodruff said, “If they see someone who doesn't appear to be a resident, let their RA (resident assistant) or even police know.”

Woodruff's advice to parents is not to be too heavy-handed while encouraging their students to stay safe and make good decisions.

“Most of us when we were that age, the last thing we wanted is to have Mom and Dad say, 'Don't do this, don't do that,'” said Woodruff. “Understand they are going to make mistakes.”

When they make a mistake, the best thing to do, said Woodruff, is consider it part of the learning process and “be supportive.”

Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota

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Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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