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Kidnap-Proof Your College Student

"Stranger danger" for young adults.

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

Five weeks ago, soon-to-be-University of Iowa-sophomore Mollie Tibbetts vanished from her boyfriend’s home in a town of less than 2000 people. She had a supportive family, solid boyfriend, good friends, summer job and strong Christian faith. She had no known enemies and no reason to run away. Yesterday, she was found dead in a cornfield, murdered by a stranger who abducted her while she was out jogging.

This tragic story got me thinking about other murdered college-aged girls – Hannah Graham who, in 2014, was abducted, raped and killed after leaving a campus party; Sierah Joughlin, who was killed after a 58-year-old neighbor abducted her while she was out for a bike ride; the University of Georgia student who was attacked and almost abducted after a stranger grabbed her and tried to drag her into a car. Most of us think of younger children when we worry about a stranger snatching our child off the street. But given that sexual assault is often the goal of stranger abductions in the United States, is this really who is most at risk?

The Truth About Stranger Abductions

Contrary to popular belief, teenagers are the most frequent victims of both stranger kidnappings as well as nonfamily (friend, acquaintance) abductions; in fact, 80% of stranger abductors snatch children 12 and older. Seventy percent of these victims are girls. The same holds true for college age adults; in 2013, 72 young adults – mainly women - aged 18 to 25 were abducted by a stranger in the United States.

However, while the odds of a stranger abducting our college student are in our favor, the mindset of many young adults is not. Just like their teenage peers, many college kids think they’re bulletproof and immortal. They also think they’re safe, especially in such a closed environment and surrounded by peers. Don’t take my word for it; several studies show that many college students will put themselves in harms way; even when they know better, they don’t always do better.

Here’s an example of what I mean. NBC national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen partnered with Hofstra University to see how college students would react to a staged interaction with a stranger. Posing as a reality show casting director with a van and a home video, he randomly invited college students to come into his van and audition for a new reality show. Not only did half of the students willingly enter the van, many of them filled out a form containing all of their personal information (name, address, and phone number). A few even handed over a personal cellphone when Jeff Rossum asked to borrow it, leaving them completely unable to call for help if they really were in danger.

A similar 2006 study at Princeton and John Jay College of Justice found that about one in four of their college subjects fell for common lures used by predators (assisting an “injured” man carry and place books in a van or agreeing to accompany a complete stranger on his trip downtown for $100.00). One young man even allowed his hands to be duct taped behind his back after getting into a van when told he could be part of a reality show. Interestingly, almost all of the students who got in the van said they felt “weird” or “uncomfortable” about it – but did it anyway.

Having the Safety Talk

The ideal time to have a safety talk with your college student is before she leaves home. However, even if you’ve just dropped her off at her dorm, or it’s the middle of the term, any time is better than no time. A good way to start is by asking her what thoughts she has about keeping safe at school and what advice she’s gotten from other students she knows. That way, you can cue off how aware she already is of potential dangers and reinforce safety strategies she already has in place.

Here are some additional safety suggestions based on risk patterns associated with violent college campus crimes.

1. Keep in touch with family and friends. No, parents don’t need to know where their college age child is 24/7. However, it’s a good idea for students to let loved ones know where they will be and when they will be back when they are deviating from their normal routine – taking a weekend trip with a new boyfriend or taking a solo road trip. The sooner loved ones know if a problem comes up, the sooner they can help.

2. Buddy up. Travel together and stay in pairs. Warn your student about the perils of walking alone; a campus security escort is always available if a friend is not. Don’t stay at a party if the last person you trust is leaving; there is safety in numbers, but only when they include people you trust.

3. Be prepared to defend yourself. Carry a whistle or alarm and pepper spray. During vulnerable times (while jogging or walking alone, getting in and out of a car, unlocking the door to your apartment) make sure they’re in your hand and you’re prepared to use it. Take a safety defense class and be familiar with abduction prevention strategies.

4. Use technology for safety, not distraction. It’s hard to recognize a potentially dangerous situation if you’re so tuned in to your headphones and smartphone that you’re unaware of what’s going on around you. In unfamiliar surroundings or sketchy situations, use your cellphone for safety instead of social interaction. Take advantage of safety apps that allow your friends to estimate how long it should take you to get somewhere and/or literally track your movements; another app lets you alert six predesignated friends with just two taps on your cellphone.

5. Don’t trust too easily. It’s easy to feel “safe” among new friends, especially when you’re relying on them to help cope with homesickness. However, you don’t really know their past or what they are really like. Don’t trust people just because you go to school with them; make sure they earn your trust over time before you give it. Similarly, keep your dorm room no matter how secure your building seems. A big trend in on-campus violence comes is hall cruising, where innocent appearing predators gain access to dorms, sororities, or residence halls by trusting residents. They then cruise the halls looking for unlocked doors to find their victim.

The Bottom Line

No matter how terrifying the thought, statistics show that stranger abduction is not something that should keep us awake at night. Of the 1,435 kidnappings last year, 1,230 were committed to family members. Of the 205 nonfamily abductions, only 100 are committed by a complete stranger.

Mollie Tibbetts family reminds us that statistics are meaningless when it comes to our own child. Let’s honor Mollie by encouraging our own college kids to make safety a priority. As St. Jerome said, the scars of others should teach us caution.

More from Joni E Johnston Psy.D.
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