Spectrum Special Investigation: Should Schools Be in ‘Protection Business’ for Students Living Off Campus?

At many colleges and universities nationwide, security on campus is a given and comes in many forms– from patrolling officers and RAs to emergency phones and locked gates.

But what about off campus?  What types of security measures, if any, should be in place for students living near– but not on– school grounds?  And is there a special moral or legal liability pertaining to areas known for being especially unsafe?  How about in the cases of international students or others who may not know what they are getting into when signing a lease?

Spectrum senior news editor Lisa Khoury spent the past five months attempting to answer those questions and others in relation to her own school, the University of Buffalo.  In a special investigation, she explored how the New York public school supervises and supports students living in the University Heights, an area near UB’s South Campus that “has become synonymous with crime and absentee landlordism.”

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The UB administrators Khoury interviewed “insist the university is not responsible for students’ safety and living conditions off campus.”  One official specifically told her UB is “not in the protection business” and school staff are “not guardian angels that can travel with 40,000 people wherever it is they are or wherever they go.”

Yet, a large majority of students surveyed for the story say the university “should do more to improve living conditions for students in the Heights.”

Upon its publication early last week, Khoury’s report outlining both sides of the debate spent days as the Spectrum‘s most-read piece online.  It has drawn outside media attention and led to a response letter from UB President Satish Tripathi published on the Spectrum‘s front page.

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In the Q&A below, Khoury outlines how she put together her long-term report and the most surprising facts she came across along the way.  She also briefly shares what she learned about schools’ legal liability in respect to students living off campus.

What were the keys to successfully carrying out this type of investigation?

More than any article I’ve ever written, there was so much reporting and fact-checking that went into executing this article accurately. I spent about five months walking around the University Heights, UB’s troubled South Campus neighborhood, going door to door, asking students and permanent residents about their experiences in the neighborhood; visiting students’ homes and seeing how they live; asking people around campus if they know people who have been affected in the Heights and then doing my best to find and interview them; researching what UB is doing to tackle issues; interviewing officials from other universities; [and] collecting statistics and numbers (like crime statistics and number of housing violations) showing what is actually occurring in the Heights despite UB’s efforts to better the neighborhood.

I went into this investigation with an open mind and an objective stance. I have no emotional tie to the Heights, and I honestly didn’t know how this article was going to pan out until a couple months into it when I started connecting the dots and finding my story. I think that’s really important when you write an investigative story– you have to be patient and do a lot of research before you decide what your story is.

Also, there’s not one line in my story that I cannot back up with factual evidence. I wrote at least four drafts of this story, and each time I would think, “No, this isn’t enough. I need more facts, evidence, and sources.”  I wasn’t going to stop until I felt the investigation was complete. I wanted the reader to leave the story with his or her own opinions, but also with the whole story.  Until the final minutes before it was published, I was fact checking line by line, putting myself in a critic’s view thinking: “What could I criticize from this line and how can I back it up factually?”

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What were the most surprising facts or anecdotes you came across during your reporting?

I came across a lot of surprising stories, like students whose homes were condemned or evacuated because of life-threatening dangers due to landlords’ negligence. One in particular was a group of students from China who had no idea carbon monoxide was leaking through their home until a group of city inspectors knocked on their door that day during a “housing blitz.” I was also surprised by the crime statistics.  [They] showed that, since 2007, rape in the Heights has increased by 50 percent, assaults by 16.6 percent, robberies by 9 percent, and larcenies by 7 percent– despite the common, “Crime is decreasing in the Heights” [statement] that I was hearing from a lot of [city] officials.

I [also] found it surprising that UB’s involvement in the Heights dramatically differs from other universities with off-campus houses in urban areas, like the University of Pennsylvania and Ohio State University. The University of Pennsylvania partnered with three different private sectors to buy housing stock, hotel space, and grocery stores to better their off-campus neighborhood– and it worked. As a result, University City (in Philadelphia) saw community and street vibrancy, and students weren’t subjected to renting from absentee landlords anymore.

Ohio State’s president directly worked with state legislation to change jurisdiction lines in its off-campus neighborhood. UB told me both weren’t possible to do, which surprised me because both of these universities found a way to accomplish at least one of those things to ensure student safety.

To be clear, in what ways, if at all, are schools legally liable for the well-being of students living off campus?

From my research, I found that, legally, schools aren’t liable for the well-being of students living off campus unless they choose to be.  If they choose to take responsibility in protecting students off campus, they become liable if anything happens to those students.  [For example,] Ohio State University and University of Pennsylvania officials believe a university has a vested interest in its student safety off campus.  [See Khoury’s report for more detail on what OSU and Penn are doing for students living near their campuses.]

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