Be prepared with the right campus safety questions.
Heading off to college is the first time many students have been on their own, meaning parents want certain assurances that their child is safe while living in relative independence. Ultimately, every college has various public safety issues ranging from property theft and illegal drug and alcohol use to hazing, sexual assault and dating violence. While available data shows that college campuses are generally safe, experts say families should understand how a school prepares for emergencies, handles criminal activity and takes proactive steps toward education and prevention to minimize campus safety threats. Read on to learn what families should ask about common safety issues.
What does the campus security report show?
Colleges receiving federal funding are required by the federal Clery Act to release a detailed annual security report. “The annual security report will include not only statistics of crimes that occur on the campus but also can outline the school’s efforts to prioritize safety and what their policies are for a number of issues such as drug and alcohol use,” says Jessica Mertz, executive director of the nonprofit Clery Center. “And one of the reasons it’s such a helpful tool is because every institution is required to compile and disseminate it.” While families can ask for insights or more information from campus officials, the legal requirements to produce these reports mean they should be readily available and easily accessible on any college website.
What type of public safety department is on campus?
Public safety approaches and staffing models can vary by campus. While one school may have a sworn police department capable of making arrests, others may rely on a security team that coordinates with local off-campus authorities. Police departments may be armed on some campuses but not others. Daniel R. Pascale, executive vice president of Margolis Healy, a safety and security consulting firm that works with colleges and universities, encourages parents to learn more about the differences and to ask additional questions about campus safety training and accreditation. “Parents really need to understand what their children are likely to encounter on a day-to-day basis and who is providing that protection,” Pascale says.
What crime prevention features are in place?
Good environmental planning can help deter opportunistic crimes by providing safety features to discourage such behavior, experts say. Think of bright areas vs. dimly lit spaces as one example. Pascale encourages families to pay attention to crime prevention features when touring a campus. Is there good lighting? Are there clear lines of sight? How are facilities secured and who has access to student spaces such as residence halls? How are cameras used on campus and where are they located? All of these questions can help families get a sense of the environmental safety features built into the college grounds.
What sexual assault education and prevention programs are there?
Mertz encourages families to ask how often students receive prevention education related to issues of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking. “How often will tell you a lot about the investments the institution has put into this work and how much it has made this a priority,” she says. “We see a lot of schools that will do a one-time education during student orientation, and then that’s it — there’s no further information given or resources. And research shows that in order for prevention education to be effective it really does need to be ongoing; it needs to be built into the infrastructure of the institution.”
Has public safety undergone training around bias and mental health issues?
On a variety of college campuses, police have been called on students of color for all types of ordinary activity, from eating lunch to napping in common spaces. With nationwide issues of race and policing in the spotlight recently, Pascale suggests asking: “What steps is the institution taking to ensure equitable and bias-free campus safety services?” Additionally, parents should ask what bias-free training has been provided. Considering there have been numerous instances of violent police interactions with students experiencing mental health issues, Mertz encourages parents to ask what kind of training campus security personnel have received in safely de-escalating such situations.
How does the school handle drug and alcohol use and abuse?
Drug and alcohol violations are common offenses on college campuses, and there are no uniform approaches to handling such issues. Some colleges may issue fines and assign community service for drug and alcohol violations, while others may require students to take safety classes or enter counseling. Experts say it’s important to ask how discipline is handed out and to inquire about abuse prevention efforts and services available for students who may have drug and alcohol issues. “What resources do you have in place to promote positive behavior around substance use?” says Erin McClintock, senior director of impact and education at EVERFI, an educational technology company. Families should also ask about programs or services for students in recovery from substance abuse disorders, as well as the possibility of sober living communities, McClintock adds.
What counseling services are available?
Students undergoing mental health issues may be a danger to themselves and others, so experts say it’s vital that colleges have counseling in place to help students in need. Those services should be proactive and widely available to the student body. “What types of outreach does the counseling center do?” McClintock suggests asking. “Are there others on campus who are responsible for supporting student mental health? Are there groups to promote positive mental health among students? What are the protocols in place for students who may not be in need of clinical support but want to better their mental wellness?” These questions can help families understand the big picture approach to mental health on campus.
How does the college handle hazing?
News reports document more than 50 deaths of college students linked to hazing since 2000, often involving the victims being forced to drink dangerous amounts of alcohol as part of an initiation into Greek life. With no federal hazing legislation, college approaches may vary greatly on this matter, experts say. “There are 44 states that have hazing laws in place, but they look very different depending on where you are,” Mertz says. “I would really encourage people to look at what those state laws are and what the mandates for an institution are. But also ask the school itself: How does it define hazing? How does it track hazing incidents? And what sort of resources have been put into preventing hazing?”
How does the college handle roommate conflict and relocation?
A roommate is a common part of the college experience, and such pairings can be a delight, a disaster or something in between. For students caught in situations where there are significant challenges with a roommate and they feel unsafe or uncomfortable, it usually is possible to change roommates. Given the potential for conflict with roommates and the effect it can have on mental health or exposure to drug and alcohol use, McClintock urges families to ask about options before an issue arises. She adds that there may be other interventions such as mediation available prior to requesting a roommate change.
How will the college communicate in an emergency?
Emergencies and how they are handled can vary greatly by campus. Just by sheer geography, a college may be more likely to experience certain severe weather events or may be located in an area where crime on or near campus is more common. Regardless of what the emergency is, families should ask about how it will be communicated. “Who is sending out timely warnings and emergency notifications to the campus?” Pascale suggests asking. “As a parent, will I be informed? And how will I get information if there’s something going on on campus?” While the methods may differ, knowing the answers to these questions can give families some peace of mind and let them know what to expect should the unexpected happen.
What transportation services are available?
Transportation is an important issue for students living off campus or even those traversing the grounds late at night. Pascale encourages students to ask about their transportation options for getting to and from campus, or just across it. Families should also ask about parking options on campus. For example, will a student be able to park on campus late at night or in a nearby neighborhood? And, going back to security features, how are parking lots and garages secured, monitored and illuminated?
What additional support services are available?
McClintock says it’s important for families to get a sense of overall comprehensive support services beyond offerings like academic tutoring to understand how colleges approach the whole student. “What resources are in place to promote student wellness? What is the school doing to promote a safe and healthy campus? Who on campus is responsible for student health and safety? It’s really important to understand the degree to which student well-being is institutionalized to the point that there are actually staff on campus who are responsible for thinking about it.” She also encourages families to explore whether wellness-promotion efforts are built into strategic plans and supported by institutional dollars and staff.
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Ask these campus safety questions.
— What does the campus security report show?
— What type of public safety department is on campus?
— What crime prevention features are in place?
— What sexual assault education and prevention programs are there?
— Has public safety undergone training around bias and mental health issues?
— How does the school handle drug and alcohol use and abuse?
— What counseling services are available?
— How does the college handle hazing?
— How does the college handle roommate conflict and relocation?
— How will the college communicate in an emergency?
— What transportation services are available?
— What additional support services are available?
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