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Virginia Tech shooting raises question: How dangerous are U.S. campuses?

The shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech on Thursday left a police officer and a gunman dead and a country with a dreaded feeling of déja vu.

Fours years ago, another gunman opened fire and rampaged through the same campus killing 32 people before turning the gun on himself.

In the 2007 incident the college administration was faulted for its emergency response and communications with campus staff and students. Thursday's response was a test of the new alert system, and while the incident left the community shocked and shaken, the system appears to have worked.

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Except the incident lends itself to the feeling that America's campus colleges are experiencing a crisis of safety.

Here is a reality check: the overall murder rate in the United States has been declining, and murders on university and college campuses represent a small fraction of those murders.

According to a report by the U.S. Secret Service, the Department of Education and the Federal Bureau of Investigation titled 'Campus Attacks: Targeted Violence Affecting Institutions of Higher Education,' which was commissioned in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and released in April 2010, there were 55 campus murders or non-negligent manslaughter deaths in 2008 across the country.

Compare that figure to the overall murder rate in 2008: 16,465.

Currently, 17 million American students attend more than 4,200 college and university institutions. The report looks at violent crime on campuses dating back to the early 20th century, with the first incident being reported as far back as 1909 when a man shot his former girlfriend on her college campus.

"The target had reportedly refused the subject's marriage proposals. He had come to the college two to three days earlier to persuade the target to change her mind," the report explains.

But the number of cases of targeted violence has been on the rise: there were 25 directed assaults in the 1970s, 40 in the 1980s, 79 in the 1990s and 83 from 2000 to 2008.

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"It is unknown what may have caused the increase in incidents identified during the past 20 years. However, consideration should be given to the increased enrollment levels at IHEs [institutions of higher education]as well as the increase in media coverage and digital reporting throughout the United States over the past few decades," the report states.

There are federal rules that require universities and colleges to be more transparent and report their crime statistics. The Clery Law was signed in 1990 after the 1986 rape and murder of freshman Jeanne Clery at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The institution had not informed its students of 38 violent crimes in the three years before her murder.

Using this national data and its own methodology, the Daily Beast produced its rankings of the 25 most unsafe colleges in the country - with the unwanted honour going to Emerson College in Boston.

The ranking caused a bit of a debate, with Emerson College arguing that the campus is actually very safe. But it is the surrounding area that is problematic.

"Any crimes that happen on Boston Common and in the subway station show up in our report but do not involve our community," an Emerson College official explained.

To which the Daily Beast replied: "Still, its students are regularly on that subway, in that park, and they also live in apartments nearby. The school reported more than 80 robberies and 60 aggravated assaults, almost all near campus rather than on it, in 2007."

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