Until the moment the fist he never saw coming slammed into his nose on a dark College Park street, Josh Notes felt very much at ease in the neighborhoods around the University of Maryland.
He was an 18-year-old from the suburbs, sure, but he was also a rugby player, strong and confident. And in the first month of his freshman year, college life already had revealed itself to be the social wonderland that a high school kid dreams of -- parties every weekend, where everyone was young, everyone was friendly and everyone was welcome. Now and then he'd spot some sketchy-looking guys on the fringes, but people seemed to get along fine.
Then came the night of Oct. 5. After leaving a party at an off-campus student house, Notes tried to help a friend escape from a fight he had gotten into with a group of unknown men who, Notes said, didn't look like students.
The next thing he remembered was waking up in a hospital with a broken nose. Two other freshmen who tried to help Notes when he was unconscious on the pavement were at the hospital, too, with broken jaws.
Today, Notes said, he realizes he had been naive. "Now I make sure I'm with a couple friends" when going out, "and we walk away from anything."
But he also realizes he was lucky: Barely a month later, another University of Maryland student was stabbed to death last weekend outside an off-campus party.
The Nov. 10 slaying of sophomore Brandon Malstrom has galvanized the university community, awakening students to the dangers that lurk near a campus that sits in a jurisdiction with the Washington region's second-highest crime rate and raising questions about what school officials should do to protect students when they venture beyond the college gates.
University officials, as well as elected leaders in College Park and Prince George's County, are considering whether or how to expand a police presence in student-dominated off-campus neighborhoods.
Yet many say the issue is exacerbated by a youthful naivete that is hard to regulate.
In College Park, many students can be spotted walking alone at night, displaying cell phones on dark street corners and throwing huge open-door parties that have been known to attract strangers to the university community.
"The university's going to have to make some changes," said Linda Clement, vice president for student affairs. "But students are going to have to make some changes, too."
Malstrom, 20, of Baltimore County died hours after he was jumped by two or three men outside a Dickinson Avenue house party, one of many celebrating Maryland's homecoming football victory over North Carolina State.
Prince George's County police say the two men they have charged with first-degree murder -- John R. Schlamp, 24, and Quan L. Davis, 23 -- were part of a larger group of men, none with an apparent connection to the school, that tried to pick a fight with Malstrom and friends out of anger over being thrown out of the party.
According to accounts Malstrom's friends gave The Diamondback student newspaper, the popular former lacrosse player did nothing to escalate the confrontation before he was attacked, simply telling the men quietly to leave him alone.
The incident has called into question the tradition of large, no-invitation-required parties that are a cornerstone of the Maryland social whirl.
Some officials quietly worry that more outsiders are showing up in College Park to try to party with students these days, drawn by stories of revelry and riots after the school won a couple of major athletic championships.
"My personal feeling is that over the past two years or so, College Park has attracted significantly more non-students to the city," said Maj. Paul Dillon of the campus police department.
At the same time, the neighborhood across Route 1 from campus has seen a spate of other violent crimes this fall, according to crime alerts released by the university.
On Nov. 6, a student was robbed at College and Hopkins avenues -- about two blocks north of the scene of Malstrom's stabbing -- by a man with a handgun. On the night of Oct. 10, two men entered a house a block away and forced residents at gunpoint to turn over personal property. And in the early hours of Oct. 3, another man with a gun robbed a person near a popular bar on Knox Road.
Campus police say that violent crime has not increased on campus in recent years. Although federal law requires colleges to disclose reports about campus crimes, many critics say it is hard to gauge how safe a school truly is, because those reports don't include incidents reported to local police or hospitals and don't take into account crime in nearby neighborhoods dominated by students.
Students living in dormitories are swaddled in an official layer of protection, from security cameras to doors that can only be opened by keycards. And school officials say students are barraged with lessons and warnings about safety from the time they arrive on campus.
"The first night they're here, we don't let it get dark before we talk to them face-to-face about keeping those doors locked, not being alone, walking with friends, riding shuttle buses," said Jan Davidson, interim director of residence life.
Yet the struggle is to make those lessons stick. "The normal adolescent never thinks anybody is going to do anything to anyone," groaned Maggie Bridwell, director of Maryland's student health center. "We spend a lot of time telling women, 'We know it's not fair you can't walk alone after midnight, but don't, please. . . .' It's like trying to grab an amoeba."
Psychological studies show that college students consistently underestimate the likelihood that they will be victims of violence, said John D. Foubert, an assistant professor at the College of William and Mary and an expert on issues of student violence.
"They're in a time in their life when they're experiencing so many freedoms at once," he said, "and they have this sense of invulnerability that they tend to act out in risky ways."
Many students maintain that while the latest incidents have raised questions about safety, they feel very comfortable in the places they frequent.
"I feel pretty safe because it's all students," said Brent Robbins, 22, a senior who lives in a group house on Dickinson Avenue, one block from where Malstrom was slain. "Once you get a little further than this block, things happen. But you figure on Dickinson, it's okay."
Notes has changed some of his habits since his assault. "I party still, but I'm more careful about my surroundings," he said. "I make sure I can handle myself."
Just around the corner from where Malstrom was attacked, a university senior stood on her doorstep and talked about her growing fears in the neighborhood.
"We're so close to the Metro, a lot of random people come through here. It makes me think twice," she said. "I would never walk home by myself. Our doors are always locked."
But on that morning, a reporter noted, her door was standing wide open. Reminded of this, she smiled apologetically and shrugged.
"Well, my roommate's coming home soon. . . . I was just outside . . ."
Staff writers Jamie Stockwell and Craig Timberg contributed to this report.