How Safe is UH Hilo?... New Year's Edition

What newcomers should know about campus safety

News Editor Nick Carrion
Photographer Sam Clubb
Graphics courtesy of UH Hilo and Hawai‘i Police Department

Going away to college can be a frightening prospect for both students and parents alike. Often this will be the student’s first time living away from home, and the main concern for many parents is their child’s safety. Worrying about theft, violence, or sexual assault can add to an already stressful four years, and the last thing that high schoolers want to consider when deciding their top choice colleges is how likely they are to be the victims of a crime.

Unfortunately, the world we live in is far from perfect, and this applies to our institutions of higher learning just as it does to the cities surrounding them. There are clear trends, and certain types of crimes occur with greater or lesser frequency on college campuses. Crimes of opportunity such as theft are most common. With plenty of backpacks, laptops, phones, and overly expensive textbooks laying around, campuses provide easy pickings for those looking to get their hands on other people’s belongings.

Sexual assault is another serious and often underreported issue at today’s universities, and while crimes of this nature have been featured more prominently in the media recently there is still much that needs to be done to eliminate this problem.

So now the question is, how does UH Hilo stack up? Campus security issues an annual report of all crimes reported both on and off campus. It’s far from a fun read, but overall the statistics point to a pretty safe school. In 2015, the most recent year for which data was available, there were no reported murders, rapes, manslaughters, aggravated assaults, or arsons.

While this is cause for optimism, the UH Hilo campus is far from the crime-free utopia we all wish it could be. In 2015, there was one case of robbery (which involves threat of force), six burglaries (which involve unlawful entry into a building) and 14 cases of motor vehicle theft.

2015 also saw one incident of “dating violence” and two cases of stalking. It should also be noted that domestic violence and sexual assault are much more likely to go unreported than other types of criminal activity.

In examining the number of ‘vices,’ the security report gets a little more confusing. One may take a look at the stats for drug, liquor, and weapons arrests, see a big zero in every column, and think that UH Hilo is a campus full of wholesome, puritanical academics with no interest in the stereotypical college party lifestyle. One would then look lower on the statistics sheet under the columns for “violations referred for disciplinary action,” and see that this is far from the case.

In 2015 there were 24 alcohol violations referred for disciplinary action, and 64 drug violations. Drugs and alcohol make up more than 75 percent of the years total 111 reported crimes - and yet, no arrests.

Pie chart showing 2015 campus crimes

The punishments handed down for each incident were not available on the campus security report, but the UH Hilo alcohol and drug policy states that “sanctions may range from mandatory involvement in educational sessions to suspension and expulsion.”

College is a notoriously popular time for experimentation and testing new boundaries, so perhaps it is best that these infractions are handled internally, with the option for expulsion for the more serious cases. Academic discipline has the benefit of teaching the offender responsibility and a little perspective, but is much less likely to affect the rest of their lives too negatively.

That’s not to advocate lighter penalties for serious drug or alcohol related crimes. And if you zoom out from UH Hilo into the crime statistics for the community as a whole, it is immediately clear that these vices are a real issue in the community. According to the Hawai‘i Police Department website, the Big Island of Hawaii saw 1,111 total DUI arrests in 2016, with 284 of those in our own district of South Hilo. Kona was the worst offender with 451 arrests, followed by Puna with 288, then South Hilo.

Chart of 2016 DUI arrests by district

While it is possible that some of these DUIs involved UH Hilo students, they are considered crimes in the community and were not handled by campus security or the UH administration.

Which brings us to the issue of campus versus community safety. Support systems like security guards, emergency telephones, and court mandated reporters all but disappear once a student leaves campus. And while students may tell their parents that we spend all of our time at home or in the library, exploring a new environment is an integral part of the college experience, especially in a state like Hawai‘i.

Any city has inherent risks, although in Hilo those risks tend to be a little higher. Location-based website gives Hilo an “F” grade in the crime category, and states that “the overall crime rate in Hilo is 99 percent higher than the national average.” The Friends of Narconon webpage lists methamphetamines as one of Hilo’s top problems. Hawai‘i Police Department Assistant Chief Henry Tavares reports 69 rape investigations in Hilo in 2015. And those DUI statistics speak for themselves.

So what’s a Vulcan to do? Do we barricade ourselves in our homes, never straying off campus for fear of falling victim to a crime? Perhaps there is a better way. Some would argue that our campus, our city, and our island are abounding with unique and exciting experiences - and that going through college too afraid to enjoy any of them would be a crime in and of itself.

Students should, however, be vigilant. It may be impossible to avoid crime altogether, but the smart student knows there are ways to cut down on their chances of becoming a victim. Most on-campus incidents are crimes of opportunity, so keeping track of belongings and locking vehicles and homes is a must. If possible, avoid walking alone at night, or stick to well-lit areas.

And when partying, do it responsibly with people you trust, and always have a sober driver. The Hawaii Police DUI report notes a 68.4 percent increase in DUI-related fatalities from 2015 to 2016, and a 4.4 percent increase in DUI’s island-wide. These are not numbers that anyone at UH Hilo wants to see increase.

So the old adage, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” may not be entirely true. Sure there is plenty to worry about, but with a little knowledge, caution, and preparedness college can still be a safe and fulfilling experience.