Rental Guide: Some universities have concerns over off-campus safety

By Nick Clunn

HACKENSACK, N.J. — The key cards and security guards that provide a layer of protection on… HACKENSACK, N.J. — The key cards and security guards that provide a layer of protection on college campuses might as well be a world away when a student steps beyond the front gates.

Within several blocks, students might see a campus police officer on patrol and the familiar faces of their peers. Expand the radius, however, and the occasional shuttle bus might be the only sign of a nearby college. The call boxes and other safeguards installed on campus — and often stressed to prospective students and their parents during tours — can’t help out here.

“In my professional opinion, I don’t believe we’re responsible,” said Paul Cell, chief of the Montclair State University Police Department, about protecting students from off-campus crime. “But I do believe we have an obligation to provide them with information that they can use to protect themselves while they’re not here.”

Because university police can’t be everywhere, educating teens and young adults to make common-sense decisions to protect themselves is an important weapon against off-campus crime.

It’s easier said than done, however. An overwhelming number of incoming freshmen have never lived on their own. Students who leave suburban and rural settings to attend colleges in cities, where crime is typically more prevalent, can face additional challenges amid an unfamiliar landscape.

While many students who encounter crime off campus fall victim to theft, such as having a GPS unit snatched from a car, others in rare instances face tragic ends.

In September, Jessica Moore, a 19-year-old sophomore from Seton Hall University, was shot dead while attending a private party at an apartment. Police say the shooter, who has since been arrested, was denied access to the party, but returned later with a handgun.

Moore was killed in East Orange, N.J. — one mile and two towns away from Seton Hall. The university responded by organizing a prayer service and encouraging students to travel in groups when walking off campus. It is unlikely that Moore could have done anything to protect herself from a shooter with no set target.

In other, more common, situations there are certain precautions that students can take.

The website for the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark contains a detailed list of recommendations for what students should do when walking off campus, using public transit and even dating.

Education programs at NJIT start at open house events, when police officers staff a table to answer questions of prospective students and their parents. They continue at freshman orientation and into the school year.

NJIT police routinely extend patrols a few blocks off campus. Officers are assigned to monitor a city subway stop on campus, even though it’s technically covered by NJ Transit police. Robert Sabattis, director of public safety at NJIT, said “It’s all about awareness.”

“For any police department, crime prevention is something you always have to keep beating the drum for,” he said.

Improving student safety off campus has also become the mission of many college organizations.

The Student Government at Notre Dame University runs a website specifically geared toward off-campus life. It contains information about restaurants and bus routes. But there are also up-to-date maps pinpointing the locations of recent crimes, and contact information for municipal police departments.

One nonprofit organization based in New York, PEACE OUTside CAMPUS, has protecting students from off-campus crime as its sole mission. It has established several chapters at different colleges. The organization was established by Mark and Kathleen Bonistall after their daughter, Lindsey, was raped and strangled in her apartment near the University of Delaware, where she attended school as a sophomore.

The website for the group contains a checklist of questions to ask and security measures to verify when students are looking for an apartment. Another list tells students how to safeguard their apartments once they’ve moved in. The website is

Colleges can better convey that kind of information through police if students view the officers as approachable resources and not just law enforcers who like to arrest teens and break up parties, said Cell.

Police at Montclair have attempted to change their image by offering free self-defense courses, assessing the safety of foreign travel destinations for spring break vacations and mentoring students who run into trouble with municipal police over minor offenses, such as noise violations.

But Cell said university police can’t get students out of paying a fine or appearing in court.

“If the town needs to enforce, they need to enforce,” he said. “We’re not going to interfere with the legal system.”