Hundreds of Petty Thefts Go Unnoticed on College Campuses

March 4, 2010 by · Comments Off 

by Aida Ahmed

Zemanuel Araya walked out of his afternoon class at the University of Texas at Dallas and headed to his car. The Texas summer heat was in full effect and all he wanted to do was crank up the air-conditioning and head home.

As he reached his faded maroon 1997 Camry, he noticed that something was missing besides the fuel tank cover that had fallen off on Interstate 635 last week. For the second time in one week, some jokester thought it would be funny to make matters worse by stealing the screw-on gas cap.

“The first time was kind of funny, and then I was just mad,” said the senior math major. “I had to go buy a cap with a lock and key.”

Hundreds of thefts from chicken salads to license plates go unaccounted for at universities around the country, often because they are so minor people do not want to report them. Typically these thefts go unnoticed or are forgiven if the property is returned.

Lt. Jerry Norris of the Southern Methodist University Police Department said most thefts of public property on campus are pranks and usually involve alcohol. He has seen an array of strange items stolen on campus over the years.

“With a little liquid courage, students sometimes even feel brave enough to steal in plain sight,” Norris said.

He remembers a few months ago when some intoxicated students stole rolling chairs, posters and office supplies from the common area of a residential house and ran across the main quad with the loot.

“If they had returned the items then maybe they would have just gotten a ticket,” Norris said.

The students decided to make a run for it instead, and in the process of chasing them an officer was injured, taking the crime from petty theft to felony evading, resisting arrest and injuring a police officer.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s campus security data, robberies of public property on college campuses in Texas doubled in 2008 compared to 2006 or 2007. All other on campus robberies increased as well.

The cost of theft on campuses can add up. According to SMU PD, the university has lost nearly $265,000 to theft in the past six months, with 130 reported burglaries, robberies and larceny theft.

David Hayden, assistant director of Hughes-Trigg Student Center, said Hughes-Trigg is a target of “campus collectors” because they have two entrances open 24 hours a day. He has worked in the student center for 12 years and says thefts seem to come in a rash, with a few stolen items at a time, then nothing for a while.

Last semester a young man came in the middle of the day and cut down one of the Hawaii Bowl banners hanging in the main commons and just walked out with it. A couple of years ago, someone stole an imitation Oscar statue during an Oscar watch party in Hughes-Trigg Theater. It was later recovered by SMU PD.

Among one of the recent stolen items from the student center is an $800 red and blue SMU rug someone rolled up and walked out with a couple of weeks ago. Hayden said he doesn’t know why people steal from Hughes-Trigg because most of the things they take cannot be shown off in public.

Still, the majority of campus theft around the country is comprised of more common items, say law enforcement officials.

Christina Kirchner, a junior at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., said her roommate regularly steals toilet paper on her way to her 8:30 a.m. class. She grabs it out of the custodial closet every couple weeks and stuffs several rolls in her backpack.

According to the Web site, iPods, bicycles, laptops, credit and debit cards and cell phones are on the list of the top ten items stolen on college campuses. Other high traffic areas where students congregate are also susceptible to on-campus crime, like residential halls. Many students become victims of crime as a result of having their dorm rooms burglarized for cash, books and class related supplies.

The SMU police department advises students to never leave valuables unattended or in plain view in their car. Also, never let strangers without a card follow you into a residential hall or the library.

The student center, which is in the process of getting cameras in four locations around the building, is not taking any chances.

“When we get cameras, we’ll start talking about replacing the stolen items,” Hayden said.