Who is responsible for ensuring your campus is a safe environment for learning and personal growth? Most colleges and universities have departments dedicated to public safety and committees focused on emergency preparedness and planning; however, involvement in campus safety initiatives shouldn’t be limited to these groups. Colleges and universities seeking to improve safety and security on campus can maximize their efforts by simply tapping into an often-overlooked resource: the student population.
Students can provide valuable insight into improving campus safety. Because they are plugged into the campus social scene, students are far more likely to witness dangerous behavior and campus crime than campus safety officials.
While faculty and staff may be naturally inclined to support initiatives promoted by the institution, students generally are not. Yet when the entire campus community—faculty, staff, and students alike—is invested in maintaining a safe, secure environment, the climate on campus becomes more productive and collaborative.
ENCOURAGE AN ACTIVE ROLE
Motivating students to take an active role in campus safety initiatives can be challenging; it requires more time and effort than simply giving incoming freshman a safety presentation during orientation. Yet when it’s done correctly, and students become active participants in campus safety, the advantages easily outweigh the effort.
Engaging the student body yields many benefits—campuses are safer, students feel more connected to the college community, and communication barriers between campus safety officials and students break down.
Empowering students to become stakeholders in campus safety begins with a simple premise: students need to feel connected to the campus community in some way. If they don’t feel like they belong and are a part of campus life, even in a minor facet, chances are they won’t feel compelled to take a role in improving safety and security.
Luckily, most campuses offer a multitude of groups focused on helping students find their niche and get connected. Residence Life, student outreach groups, and other resources help bolster social connectivity through campus events and by identifying students who may need assistance.
The first step in promoting safety as a community endeavor is ensuring your safety department is fully integrated into your campus community. Too often, safety and security officials become caught in a reactive cycle where the only contact they have with students is disciplinary in nature.
Don’t wait until something goes wrong on campus to make your presence felt. Students should be familiar with campus safety officials as individuals. Building meaningful connections facilitates trust and understanding which in turn make students more likely to contact campus safety officers and support campus safety initiatives.
Promoting the campus safety department’s impact can also send a valuable message to students about its priorities. Sharing statistics and the results of your efforts to protect students and deter crime on campus demonstrates that your department is invested in their wellbeing—and that your officers do far more than just confiscate alcohol and break up parties.
Establishing partnerships with organizations, both on and off campus, is crucial to building a sense of community. Offering campus safety department services for student events can also go a long way in establishing trust and open communication and developing connections with students and staff.
Collaboration on projects—community service or otherwise—has proven to be a successful tactic for fostering relationships with groups that are typically anti-establishment or wary of authority. Oftentimes, simply reaching out to these groups to ask for input on campus safety issues can make a substantial impact. Go to them; don’t wait for them to come to you!
When students and staff believe their input is valued and their voices are being heard, they feel more connected to safety and security policies and become personally invested in campus safety.
Most campus safety departments provide basic safety training to Residence Life departments, student housing staff, and other facilities personnel. This training typically covers general emergency protocols and procedures (i.e., what to do in a weather emergency), when and how to contact campus safety, and what to do if you see someone or something suspicious. While the basics provide a good foundation, expanding training related to recognizing and reporting suspicious activity promotes a proactive approach of prevention and detection versus a reactive one.
Ideally, every student and staff member should receive training that covers handling and, more importantly, identifying suspicious behavior. During a recent training session with Residence Life coordinators, one campus safety consultant was shocked that no one in the room could articulate what constituted a suspicious person, a suspicious package, or suspicious behavior.
College campuses present unique challenges because students may see suspicious or alarming behavior, but anxiety and uncertainty over reporting what they observed prevents them from taking action. Additionally, because many college students are living on their own for the first time, they may not be fully capable of evaluating a situation and determining the best way to respond—especially in ambiguous situations.
For example, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, multiple students recounted seeing a suspicious hooded man lurking outside of Norris Hall (where the shooting spree occurred) two days before the massacre. Students also recalled that some doors to Norris Hall had been chained shut during the same time. Although students noticed these things and identified them as out of the ordinary, they tragically weren’t compelled to notify anyone until after the unthinkable had happened.
FEAR OF CONSEQUENCES
Reporting suspicions to campus safety officials can be intimidating for students. They may worry about getting in trouble, or getting friends in trouble and being ostracized or facing retaliation. In dangerous situations, students may think that calling campus safety or calling 911 may increase danger by aggravating a potential attacker.
In addition to teaching students how to recognize and respond to suspicious activity, campus safety departments should also provide witness and bystander intervention training. Educating students about what constitutes specific types of crime helps fight misconceptions about what should or should not be reported. Too often, crimes go unreported simply because students are not aware that a crime or violation of the university’s code has even been committed.
TOOLS FOR A SAFE CAMPUS
Blue light phones placed strategically around campuses have improved student safety for years by providing a direct line to campus safety officials. Most campuses offer escort services that students can utilize when walking from point to point on campus after dark or late at night. In recent years, many institutions have turned to technology—such as security cameras, access control, and electronic reporting systems—to further enhance safety.
Recently, additional tools have been developed to help overcome obstacles that prevent students from reporting suspicions and engaging with their campus safety departments. For example, a new smart phone app designed to increase campus safety is available to institutions via subscription service.
Students can download the app for free and a simple chat interface allows them to quickly, safely, and anonymously converse with campus safety personnel. In ambiguous situations, or when students aren’t certain of the appropriate action to take, this type of app offers an easy way to check with someone who knows what to do and offer assistance.
Having a direct line to campus safety officers via a smart phone app can expand the network of safety beyond the areas where blue light phones, escort services, and other campus security tools are located.
AN EMPOWERED CAMPUS
By placing the tools for safety and communication directly into the hands of students, your campus safety department can empower students to become stakeholders and active participants in the safety of their campus community.
Engaging students in safety initiatives, providing training to increase awareness, and developing connections to build trust between students and campus safety officials are vital steps to building a strong, healthy campus where all individuals are empowered to take an active role in campus safety.
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