The violent crime rate across 21 Maryland colleges and universities reached a nine-year high last year, driven by an increase in reports of aggravated assaults, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis.
The violent crime rate grew 58% from 2014 to 2022, with a dip during pandemic years, according to the analysis of crime data the schools are required to report to the federal government.
Last year, the average violent crime rate was 2.2 crimes per 1,000 students, up from 1.5 in 2021. Enrollment was about 151,500 across the 21 schools in 2022.
Of violent crimes — murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — reported across the 21 institutions last year, nearly half were aggravated assaults, with the majority reported by three schools: The Johns Hopkins University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland College Park. More than two-thirds of all aggravated assaults happened on campus.
School safety experts say the ways the pandemic disrupted social systems and harmed individuals’ mental health may help account for the recent uptick in the violent crime rate.
This fall, Morgan State University canceled its homecoming celebrations after five people, four of them students, were injured in an Oct. 3 shooting on campus. Days later, two teens were wounded in a shooting at Bowie State University.
The recent shootings have sparked new conversations on campus security. At an annual student town hall the week after the shooting, Morgan State President David Wilson unveiled a plan to enclose 90% of campus and restrict the public’s “unfettered access” to the school.
The Sun examined nine years of crime data, from 2014 through 2022, from 21 four-year institutions. It included an institution in the analysis if its combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment was at least 1,000 and it had on-campus housing. The federal Clery Act requires schools that participate in federal student financial programs to report crimes on and near campus and at certain off-campus properties.
An aggravated assault is when a person attacks another “for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury,” according to the Clery Act regulations, and often includes a weapon that could cause death or great bodily harm. When a weapon such as a gun or knife is used, it’s counted as an aggravated assault, even if a victim is uninjured.
The Johns Hopkins University reported 81 aggravated assaults last year, with 52 reported on campus at the Homewood academic campus, the Bayview Medical Center and its medical campus in East Baltimore. The remaining assaults happened on “public property,” which typically includes roads, sidewalks and parking lots within the campus and “immediately adjacent and accessible from it.”
The greatest number of assaults were reported for the school’s East Baltimore location, which includes the Johns Hopkins Hospital. “Hospitals get a lot of assaults, patients on staff and doctors,” said Shayne Buchwald-Nickoles, a university spokesperson.
In four of the university’s reported aggravated assaults last year, witnesses reported an attacker had a firearm, although it’s unclear what those guns were, including if any were toys. “If someone comes and makes a report and says, ‘I think they had a gun,’ we have to include it,” Buchwald-Nickoles said.
Hopkins is in the final stages of forming its own sworn police force, which will patrol the Homewood, East Baltimore and the Peabody Institute campus areas. Some students and neighbors have objected to its implementation; the university has said it’s needed “to improve our ability to respond to our community’s growing public safety needs.”
Bowie State University had the second-highest number of aggravated assaults in the 2022 data, with 27 reported last year. Bowie State spokesperson Cassandra Robinson said she didn’t know how many incidents involved students, but said none of the attacks involved a weapon.
“This is definitely an anomaly for our campus. It’s not something we’d seen before. It’s definitely something we’re looking at to see what kind of interventions can be successful in reducing it,” Robinson said. Adding more resources for students and staff to work on conflict resolution and managing emotions are among those interventions, she said.
Bowie State added more security and police officers following the October shooting, and began checking earlier in the evening the IDs of those entering campus.
Maryland institutions are not unique in seeing new safety challenges after the pandemic. Campus safety consultant S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses LLC, said schools he advises across the country have identified “post-pandemic student behavior” as a major factor in changes such as a greater number of liquor law violations.
Odis Johnson Jr., executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said the uptick in violent crime on Maryland campuses is consistent with a recent trend of violence in K-12 schools and in cities generally as young people readjust from 2020 and 2021. Campus crime had been declining nationwide over the last decade, Johnson said, until recently.
“For kids who have been perhaps quarantined for two years, maybe their skill set for managing complex relationships just wasn’t what it used to be,” Johnson said. That’s on top of a youth mental health crisis documented in reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We were unaware that students would actually come back needing some support and more resources for adjustment,” Johnson said. “I think schools were unprepared, and perhaps dropped the ball on anticipating some of these challenges.”
He said schools, both K-12 and universities, should offer extra support for students, including mental health resources, and ensure that security measures don’t stigmatize certain students or unnecessarily heighten fears about violence.
The University of Maryland, College Park noted in its most recent annual security report that the campus saw a “noticeable increase” in vehicle thefts and aggravated assaults in 2022. A spokesperson for university Chief of Police David Mitchell did not respond to questions from The Sun about the reported assaults and what factors might account for the increase.
“We have implemented a number of safety and security measures across campus,” Lt. Rosanne Hoaas said in an email to The Sun, including “high-visibility patrols,” a unit that analyzes data to improve crime prevention and response, automated license plate readers, cameras and technology designed to “listen” for possible gunfire. “The health and safety of every member of our campus community remains our highest priority,” Hoaas said.
The university’s annual security report detailed its 10 reported aggravated assaults, which involved 18 victims. Weapons in the seven on-campus cases included a gun that fires gel-filled balls, a BB gun, a knife and a brick. Off-campus, drivers aimed firearms at five people in two separate “road rage incidents.” Other reports stemmed from a fistfight and five incidents involving paint pellets.
The total crime rate for the 21 Maryland colleges and universities was down slightly from pre-pandemic levels at 3.9 crimes per 1,000 students in 2022. The property crime rate was also down from pre-pandemic rates, with 1.1 crimes per 1,000 last year.
There were five “willful killings” — a term used by the U.S. Department of Education — in the 2022 violent crime rate for the Maryland institutions The Sun analyzed. Morgan State reported two, while three were reported by Johns Hopkins for its East Baltimore location. The number of such nonnegligent killings is usually zero or one for Maryland schools, outside of three reported in 2016 and five reported in 2017.
Experts caution that institutions’ self-reported crime statistics are just a starting point for evaluating a school’s safety. Annual security reports detail how schools collect such data and implement security policies, while campus climate surveys can provide a fuller picture of sexual violence.
A number of factors can influence overall crime reporting on campuses, including location, size and the percentage of students who live in dormitories, said Abigail Boyer, associate executive director of the nonprofit Clery Center, which works to help universities follow the law. More reported crime can also be a positive, as it can mean students trust campus authorities.
“Higher numbers aren’t necessarily a bad thing,” Boyer said. “They might indicate that you’re building a culture where people are coming forward because they’re comfortable in the response they might receive.”
Colleges the center has worked with that receive grants from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women find that as they implement new reporting protocols and prevention procedures, they see an increase in reporting of offenses like harassment, stalking and sexual assault, Boyer said.
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Jane Stapleton, co-director of the University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations Research Center, calls Clery Act crime data “a piece of the puzzle” in understanding what’s happening at schools.
Underreporting is common when it comes to relationship violence and sexual misconduct, so surveys that allow students to anonymously share experiences can be a better tool, said Stapleton, who is also co-founder and president of a nonprofit spun out of her center’s research called Soteria Solutions.
At the 21 Maryland institutions, the sexual crime rate of 1.3 reports per 1,000 students, including rape, fondling, incest and statutory rape, hasn’t changed much since 2014, gradually increasing before dropping slightly the year before the COVID-19 pandemic started.
Tom Saccenti, CEO of the National Association of Campus Safety Administrators and a former campus police chief, says schools’ annual reports provide a good snapshot of institutions’ security policies than can help parents evaluate campus safety.
Saccenti said there has been a gradual increase nationally in the number of institutions with sworn police agencies since the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.
On Oct. 6, shortly after the Bowie State and Morgan State shootings, St. Mary’s College announced that the school would add armed security guards. However, the change had been in the works since April, following a yearlong review of national trends, said Jerri Howland, vice president of student affairs at St. Mary’s.
Baltimore Sun editor Steve Earley and reporter Caitlyn Freeman contributed to this article.