Increased security greets arriving University of Minnesota students

Welcome week student members assist new students.
Welcome week student members assist incoming freshmen at the University of Minnesota as they move into dorms in Minneapolis, Aug. 25, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

In the wake of a surge in crime near the University of Minnesota last year, this year's crop of new students will see more police, stricter building access and a heightened discussion of safety.

University officials have stepped up security to protect students and prepare for a wave of outsiders flowing through the campus now that it includes Green Line light rail stops. Students could encounter rowdier Sundays when the Minnesota Vikings play at TCF Bank Stadium.

"We think we have a better-informed, wiser community as compared to a year ago," said Pam Wheelock, vice president for university services.

Last fall, a spike in crime rattled the campus community, which includes about 7,000 students who live on campus and thousands more in surrounding neighborhoods. The area suffered 26 robberies, including four on campus — a 50 percent increase over the fall average of 17.

With student apprehension up over last year, "the vibe has changed," said Minnesota Student Association President Joelle Stangler.

Since then, the university has boosted campus security and education to prevent another surge this fall.

Its $4 million plan includes a number of security improvements:

Restricted building access. U of M has activated key-card security systems and restricted public access in more than 140 buildings on both the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses. University leaders are focusing next on securing tunnels and skyways.

More secure exteriors. Officials have focused 16 new cameras on high-traffic outside areas such as University Avenue and Church Street. They add to the 1,600 cameras already on campus. The U also has improved the lighting between residence halls and in high-traffic areas outside.

More safe transportation. Students will benefit from expanded late-night bus and safety-escort services during the week and on weekends.

More police presence. The campus police department has added three full-time officers, raising the number of sworn officers to 50. The U will ramp up police presence as needed if crime increases, Wheelock said, and more public-safety personnel will also be present on Vikings game days.

More talk about security. Through programs such as SAFE U, the university is communicating with students and parents more than ever about how students can stay safe.

"Safety is being pounded, pounded, pounded [in] Welcome Week," Stangler said. The university "is being more proactive as opposed to being reactive, and I think we saw a lot of reactive actions last year."

Incoming freshmen and their families pack bins.
Incoming freshmen and their families pack bins at the University of Minnesota as they move into dorms.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

Families moving freshmen into residence halls this week say they've been listening.

Freshman music-therapy major Mackenzie Mondek of Naperville, Ill., said last year's crime news "was concerning, because I'm from the suburbs," and that she has taken in all the safety tips that campus officials have offered.

Her classmates and their families gave the U of M high marks for addressing security concerns as comprehensively as it has through email and orientation sessions.

Elaine Auger of Motley, whose son, Seth, will study business, said campus officials "made us feel at ease about it — like they're really on top of it all."

U of M leaders are waiting to see how the light rail, which started in June and has several stops on campus, will affect both safety and security. Meanwhile, they're trying to teach students how to avoid accidents.

"We've seen students with their headphones on crossing the street where the tracks are without necessarily checking to see if there's a train coming," said Marjorie Savage, the university's parent program director. "We're worried about that."

Incoming freshman Lucy Chen and her mother
Incoming freshman Lucy Chen uses some muscle as she and her mother Danya Chu move Chen into Centennial Hall at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

Campus police Chief Gregory Hestness said some parents also have expressed concern about the train's potential to bring criminals to campus. Hestness doubts that will happen but he said public safety officials are keeping an eye on it.

They're also prepping for Vikings games at TCF Bank Stadium — which could draw rowdier fans than those who cheer on the Gophers.

"People will see more life, more activity," said U spokesman Tim Busse said. "It's definitely going to be hopping around here."

But beyond the extra traffic and activity, Busse said, he's "not sure they'll see an enormous difference."

For now, some incoming freshman said they're excited at the prospect of Vikings across the street.

"It might be a little inconvenience for some people," said Logan Kelly, a mechanical engineering student who is arriving from Hastings. "But I think more people will enjoy it than dislike it.I think people will get used to the changing face."