Last Spring, I was assaulted while walking from Erwin Terrace. It was early in the evening, and I was on Circuit Drive. Four men approached me from behind. One punched me in the head as the others shouted, “Get that n*gger.” I’ve never run faster in my life as I yelled for help.
Six months later, and I’m still a little shaken by what could have happened that night. Luckily, I was able to outrun the group and take refuge behind the walls of the French Family Science Center without serious bodily harm. As a 6’2” male, it’s rare that I feel unsafe in any given environment. In fact, at times I’ve possessed a naïve assumption about my safety. Growing up in suburbia gives one certain illusions about the intelligence of walking outside at any given hour. I’ve never been afraid for my safety because it’s always been something I’ve taken for granted. That thinking was shattered last April. I’m now hyperaware of my surroundings, even on campus.
The senseless violence of it is something I still think about today. Four men, who I had never seen before in my life, tried to hurt me for no discernible reason. This was no mugging, and there was no apparent motivation. They didn’t ask me for anything before one of them decided to punch me in the head. The racial slur ironically hurled my way made little sense as I am quite obviously white, though I guess this could have played some role in the decision to target me. A mugging I could have understood and rationalized, but the randomness of the attack still bothers me.
The recent spate of on-campus burglaries and robberies has reminded me of what I went through last April. I’d like to say that I feel safe on campus again but that wouldn’t be true. The Clery Act is a federal law that requires universities participating in federal financial aid programs to record and alert students about crimes committed on and near campus. It’s the reason we get texts about certain incidents involving Duke students. My attack was classified by the Duke Police Department as simple assault. Simple Assault is an offense that does not need to be reported under the federally mandated Clery Act, which focuses on graver offenses such as robbery and homicide. This makes me question the number and frequency of other incidents such as mine that occur on campus. I don’t believe that other Duke students are routinely being attacked in such a manner or that the police department is routinely misrepresenting statistics by not including simple assault in its alerts, but I am astonished that no warning was sent via text following my attack.
Crime is a thorny issue for the university. It brings up the inherent wealth disparity and privilege that characterize Duke’s place in Durham. While Duke produces innumerable economic and social opportunities for the city, it also provokes anger and loathing from some segments of the population. I don’t have the answers to the problems facing student safety on campus but I think considering them is a good place to start. That begins with understanding that there is a problem and that, unless Durham or Duke moves, that’s going to continue to be the case. A dialogue with students, the city and the police about safety and environmental awareness should be a continuing part of campus life and not a onetime event during orientation week. Students need to be reminded that while Duke is very safe, it does not exist in a bubble. Safety to a large degree is an individual responsibility that requires an understanding of one’s environment and the risks that accompany it. Furthermore, the Duke Police Department should also hold itself to a higher standard than the Clery Act mandates. There were other students walking on Circuit Drive that night, and they should have been alerted. The semantic distinction between simple and aggravated assault doesn’t constitute a significant enough difference in student safety to exclude it from the alerts. Statistics on simple assault should be kept by the University, and students should be notified when incidents occur near or on campus.
Crime happens. It’s an unfortunate reality of life, and I don’t blame Duke for what happened last Spring. While I should be able to walk on campus without fear in the early evening, the University can’t realistically be expected to prevent all random acts of violence from occurring. What Duke can do, however, is alert us when these abnormal events occur and encourage students to consider more frequently how they relate to their environment. Personal safety is for the most part an individual responsibility, but part of the university’s role in safeguarding its students must include a discussion of crime. It’s not possible to think about preventing events one is unaware of. This continuing series of discussions, not the closure of Towerview Drive, is what will truly make students safer on campus.
Colin Scott is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday.