With their rainbow-sprinkled ice cream sundaes, the incoming freshmen at Miami University seem more like nervous middle schoolers at their first dance than college students at an orientation ice cream social.

The scene is innocent, sweet even. But it is fleeting, say officials on campuses across the Tristate, because in just a few months, some of those same incoming freshmen may well be holding beer cans and learning drinking games like beer pong and dizzy bat.

For kids in college, accessing alcohol is as easy as ordering pizza.

Unfortunately, this can quickly evolve into a serious danger to students. Life can come at you fast when you are 18, on your own, away from home, and eager to be accepted whether you are at a tiny, private school or a sprawling state university.

Parents of freshmen and even returning, older college students need to be aware of campus safety, and that unsafe circumstances often are related to drinking, say safety and student officials on several campuses.

By checking off more than just the typical items on a packing list of dorm room and school supplies, parents can better prepare their students for move-in day and help ensure their safety throughout their college experience. Whether suburban Thomas More College or urban University of Cincinnati, campuses present plenty of opportunities for both minor issues like the theft and major issues alike. Those major issues are often linked to alcohol.

Lori Lambert, director of residence life at Xavier University, says parents' biggest concern may not be with their own students' drinking, but with the negative effects of drinking by others.

That is not to say that if their child has not experimented with drinking before college, they are in the clear.

"College is a time of growth and experimentation," Lambert says. "Even if a student has not been drinking in the past, there's a chance they will once they get here."

To lower the chances of it becoming an issue, Lambert suggests that parents keep talking to their children. Encourage open, frank dialogue. She also suggests setting realistic expectations.

According to a 2008 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 25 percent of those ages 16 and 17 reported they drank alcohol. That rises to nearly 70 percent by ages 20 to 21. Approximately 60 percent of full-time college students reported they were current drinkers, 40 percent indulged in binge drinking, and about 16 percent were heavy drinkers.

Ohio University junior and history major David Marchione believes that it is important to teach children how to make good choices before they even get to school. How to make the right kind of friends, for example, is important.

Lambert agrees.

"It's paramount because if parents can't teach their kids to look at a situation and be able to get out of it if it's bad, or be able to stand up to their peers, it's going to be an issue," she says.

For Marchione, OU has always felt safe, but he knows there are problems and he, too, blames them on excessive alcohol use.

"Most of the crimes here only occur because people get too drunk and lose control," he says.

In 2008, the OU campus police department cited people for 640 liquor law violations and made approximately 140 liquor-related arrests at the Athens
campus, meaning 70 percent of crimes handled by campus police were alcohol-related.

At Miami, a similar sized school, the problem is the same. In 2008, the MUPD gave about 550 alcohol-related judicial referrals and made around 80 arrests for liquor law violations, meaning alcohol was the culprit in nearly 90 percent of crimes.

Escort, Emergency Services

College and safety officials want students to be on guard against serious injury, offering escort services, "Blue Box" emergency systems and services for victims of sexual or physical assault.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly 50 percent of perpetrators of sexual assault have been drinking, as well as 50 percent of their victims.

In addition to a basic self-defense class offered during the semester for university credit, Miami has the HAWKS group (Health Advocates for Wellness Knowledge and Skills), which provides programs about sexual assault and its link to alcohol to student organizations and residence halls. There is also an all-male group MARS (Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault) who meet to discuss what they can do to help prevent sexual crimes on campus.

At their Campus Recreation Center, UC offers boxing classes and a self-defense class. For those who are assaulted or need to talk about sexual harassment, there is a 24/7 helpline at the UC Women's Center.

Likewise, OU offers health and counseling services at its Student Health Center for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. The group R.A.D. (Rape Aggression Defense) teaches self-defense tactics and techniques to all women of the OU community. It starts with awareness, and then moves on to prevention, risk reduction, avoidance and hands-on techniques.

Walking in well-lit areas and with friends is sound advice. Marchione agrees, "My best advice to anyone on a college campus is to always walk with a friend, especially if it's at night."

Many schools offer students an escort service to ensure they can always get from one campus location to another. One example is UC's NightWalk service, a free student volunteer-powered door-to-door shuttle service to and from locations on and around UC's East, West and CAS campuses after dark. Both Miami and OU have similar services called Nighttime Door-to-Door Service and the SAFE-T patrol.

Many schools such as OU, Xavier and Miami also have emergency telephones scattered across campus that have a direct connection to the campus police dispatcher in case any student needs help.

Ounce of Prevention

Most colleges provide text message alert systems to keep students and staff informed about campus crime. Students can join on their school's website. In the event of a major emergency on campus, schools can send out texts to instantly.

According to Miami Police Lt. Ben Spilman, theft and burglary are also concerns for police on every campus.

"People have the preconception that because we are a bit isolated from metropolitan areas, nothing bad can happen," he says, "but this is not true."

Students, like Marchione, agree it's easy to think that way. "I feel safe at OU, especially compared to the level of crime at urban schools ... crime really only happens a couple of times a year here, and it's usually blown out of proportion," he says.

At Miami, a very suburban school, nearly 400 thefts and burglaries are reported each year, and the property stolen in those incidents is valued at more than $100,000.

In comparison, since January of this year, there have already been nearly 500 thefts and burglaries in the combined Uptown campuses at UC.

Most schools, including Miami and Xavier, offer sessions to inform parents and students about safety measures.

The UC police department suggests that when students walk with a bag, they have the bag's flap facing their body and hold it shut with one hand. Families, police suggest, should make sure the landlord has changed all locks on apartments or houses regardless of how safe its location before move-in day. Families may also request a police officer conduct a security survey of the new apartment or house. Tenants should be reminded to use the front door's peephole, pull down window shades after dark, and stop newspaper and mail delivery while on breaks or away from school.

Many campus police officers suggest that students have their valuables engraved with their names or initials and keep photo or video documentation to serve as proof of ownership in case something is stolen.

"Our campus is only as safe as you make it," Spilman says.

If parents helped their children remember to bring this advice along with their extra bed sheets with them every year, campus safety might not be such an issue. â–