A blue light security pole at Lipscomb University

Blue light poles dot the Lipscomb University campus, providing students a way to quickly alert campus security and local police that they need help.

Crime on college campuses fell sharply in 2020, according to an annual Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report, with COVID-19 playing a major role.

Kyle Dickerson, chief and executive director of Lipscomb University’s Department of Security, said COVID-19 played a large role in the drop in crime, both through campus closures across the state and through the virtual offerings many students opted into after campuses reopened.

“(Closures) pulled a lot of people physically off the campus,” Dickerson said.

Even when schools reopened campuses and options for in-person classes, he said, a lot of students, at least at Lipscomb, remained in virtual learning options for at least part of the time.

“So that just took away a lot of potential opportunity,” he said.

According to the TBI report, crime fell by about 33.5% in 2020 across all colleges in the state. After the TBI reported that 5,666 crimes were reported on college campuses in 2019, only 3,766 were reported in 2020.

Sizable reductions were seen across the board, as violent and nonviolent crimes fell.

Assault offenses, which cover crimes from aggravated assault to vandalism, fell by 49.8%, the TBI said. Larceny and theft offenses fell by 34.3% statewide.

Vanderbilt University saw assault offenses drop from 209 to 117 and thefts drop from 438 to 310.

Vanderbilt declined to provide an interview for this story, but spokesperson Julia Jordan noted that crime reports from the university also include crimes committed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Vanderbilt Health One Hundred Oaks.

Smaller universities such as Belmont also saw a drop in crime.

Belmont reported seven assault cases in 2019 and three in 2020. Tennessee State University reported that assault offenses fell from 46 to 17 and thefts fell from 59 to 15.

Lipscomb stood out from the pack as one school where more crime was reported, but only because the school reported that it had no campus crime in 2019. In 2020, the school reported one theft case, one burglary and two instances of vandalism.

But one year of decreased crime, credited in part to a pandemic, doesn’t mean campus security and police departments are going to have an easier time ahead.

Schools have to do a lot to keep students safe, and Dickerson said they’re putting the work in to improve each year.

Dickerson said that his team, like those around the state and the country, have worked hard to implement a variety of safety measures over the past few years that can aid students in protecting themselves and others from crime.

Those measures include blue light systems, mobile reporting apps, escorts and other services connected to university security departments and local law enforcement.

Lipscomb, in particular, uses an app called Lipscomb Ready, which is filled with resources and tools for students.

Those in-app resources include a panic button for rapidly contacting authorities, a tool to report crimes and even a virtual “Bison Walk,” which is the school’s service for providing an escort to students walking at night.

The virtual service can be used anywhere in the world, Dickerson said. It sends a GPS tag to authorities, who can monitor the student’s location until they are safely at a destination they have marked.

Apps like Lipscomb Ready are increasingly available at a large number of college and university campuses, offering students a plethora of quick options when they’re concerned about safety.

Dickerson said his team also sends emails with basic tips for watching out for seasonal crimes, which he said are often forgotten because they are so easily taken for granted.

For example, if it’s winter, Dickerson said, students might be carrying more in their cars, so they should be extra sure that they lock their doors and put anything important out of sight in the trunk.

In spring, they remind students that they should take their phones with them on runs, and don’t listen to music so loudly that they can’t hear traffic or other sounds.

But one of the most important things that the security staff has done at Lipscomb, Dickerson said, was make sure that the campus culture included a sense of responsibility for keeping one another safe.

“We try to foster a culture that lives in the idea that we’re there to take care of each other and that there’s a personal responsibility for safety,” Dickerson said. “And that’s a really big part, I think, for our campus that helps us avoid and prevent any crime that might happen.”

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