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Damage Control: Will Behl Case Hurt VCU?

As the search continues for 17-year-old Behl, who disappeared Sept. 5 after leaving her dorm room, it remains unclear what lasting effect the case will have on the university and its students, and whether it will give pause to prospective VCU parents.

All urban universities consider such issues, says Colin Riley, spokesman for Boston University. "Safety and security of students is the university's number one priority, period," he says. Like VCU, Boston University has about 30,000 students. Its main campus stretches along the Charles River in downtown Boston.

Most students aren't preoccupied with safety, but parents are ever-vigilant, Riley says. "I'll drive you to Boston, but if I see anything I don't like, I'll take you home," he heard one father say to a Tulane University student who came to BU this fall.

VCU administrators have heard from "a handful of parents, and I do mean a handful, and that was early on in the case," says Anne Buckley, associate director of university news services.

"They were really just looking for reassurance about their own child's safety," she says. VCU staff reply to such concerns by talking about the university's 70-officer police force, the continuous security presence in residence halls and the ubiquitous blue-light emergency phones.

As to whether the news coverage of Behl's disappearance may be damaging VCU's public image, Buckley says, "I think it's certainly something we would keep an eye on. … But we also know that we have a reputation for being a safe campus, particularly in light of an urban setting."

Behl liked VCU's urban environment, Peterson says, and that's one of the reasons she chose to go there.

"Urban education is hot right now," says Ray Betzner, director of communications for Temple University, a research institution of about 34,000 students with its main campus in downtown Philadelphia.

While parents consult administrators about safety, Betzner says, "students talk to other students about it." Before a student even arrives at school, he says, you can bet they've talked to friends and siblings there about campus crime.

A high-profile case like Behl's, generally prompts them to ask questions, but appears not to have any measurable effect on enrollment. "They tend, rightly or wrongly, to see incidents like that as very out of the norm," Betzner says. — Melissa Scott Sinclair

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