Families should review colleges’ annual security reports and ask about available campus safety services.

By Sarah Wood


Single Person Walking on Street in the Dark Night

Prospective students and their families can also contact colleges or raise questions while on a campus visit to get more clarity about safety policies and procedures. (GETTY IMAGES)

High-profile news of crimes at colleges may stir up questions for prospective students and families around the safety of campuses.

Although colleges are typically known to be safe environments, the reality is that “most campuses aren’t closed off to communities,” says Steven J. Healy, co-founder and CEO of Margolis Healy, a safety and security consulting firm that works with colleges and universities. “So crimes that are occurring in those neighborhoods could in fact impact safety on campus.”

Families should understand how a school handles criminal activity, prepares for emergencies and takes steps toward education and prevention to reduce threats, campus safety experts say.

One way to learn about the crime rates – including burglaries, homicides, sexual assault and hate crimes – at a particular campus is by reading the annual security reports of each college, which are available online. Colleges that receive federal funding are required by the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, commonly known as the Clery Act, to release these details.

Prospective students and their families can also contact colleges or raise questions while on a campus visit to get more clarity about safety policies and procedures. Here are examples of questions to ask schools about common safety issues.

1. What kind of on-campus support and safety services are available for students?

Support services vary widely and can depend on size and location of the college. But in terms of security, many schools require key-card access to get into any residence hall or academic building, offer escort services – such as “safe rides,” which pick up and transport students on campus – and have their own police departments.

Campus police often participate in first-year orientation to inform students about rules and safety procedures on campus. But many police officers also work to stay connected with students and community members throughout the year by hosting events like “Coffee with a Cop,” an opportunity for attendees to ask questions or express concerns.

“Some students will come to campus with their idea of what the police are and what they represent,” Healy says. “College campuses have an opportunity to try to recast that by being a partner and being a co-creator. Not necessarily being seen as ‘these are the people who are enforcing, these are people who are engaged in racial profiling, these are people who are breaking up my parties.’ You start to see them a little differently as value-added contributors to the entire student life experience.”

During orientation, schools may also require students to participate in several training sessions, including bystander intervention and sexual assault and gender-based violence prevention. But experts say it’s important for these programs to be ongoing.

“The notion of safety is not a one-and-done deal,” Healy says. “You can’t just give somebody a 45-minute presentation in the midst of 25 other presentations and expect that it’s going to resonate with them.”

Colleges also offer other resources, including Title IX offices and counseling services.

“We know a lot of campus violence is carried out by people who are at the point of distress or crisis,” says Marisa Randazzo, director of threat assessment at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “So we have a lot of resources and counseling that can help support a student or faculty or staff member who may be in crisis.

2. How do you communicate with students in an emergency?

Colleges use different platforms to inform the campus community about potential or immediate dangers, including severe weather, an active shooter or an anonymous threat. Emergency communications often come in the form of a text message alert.

Dakota State University in South Dakota, for instance, uses a platform called Everbridge, which can send out text messages, emails or phone calls in case of an emergency.

“As soon as a university official is made aware of a situation that meets the criteria for an emergency or a crisis that could impact the university or within the local area of the university property, an emergency message can be put out,” says Heath Abraham, the safety resource officer at DSU. “We go directly toward text messaging and phone calls if it’s really important because that’s what kids are going to read first.”

Information on how a college communicates during an emergency is often on its website.

3. Do you have a threat assessment team?

A threat assessment team is trained to handle any type of threatening behavior from students, faculty or staff, community members, alumni or others to reduce or prevent campus violence.

Different from other response teams – such as a behavioral intervention team or a Coordination, Assessment, Response and Education team, known as a CARE team – threat assessment teams became best practice after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, Randazzo says. However, not every college has one.

“Students these days are pretty savvy when it comes to safety and security,” she says. “These are kids who’ve grown up with active shooter drills and school lockdowns from the time they’ve been in nursery school or elementary school. We often see questions come up from our new students, ‘How do I reach the threat assessment team?’ These are not questions that we got five, 10 years ago. It’s important for any college or university to recognize that and be transparent about all the different safety and security measures they have.”

4. How do you handle drug and alcohol use and abuse?

Drug and alcohol violations are common offenses on college campuses, with underage students often using substances on campus and visiting local bars. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to handling these issues, experts say.

Some colleges may issue fines and assign community service for drug and alcohol violations, while others require students to take additional educational training to talk about the risks or enter counseling.

These training sessions are not meant as a punishment, Healy says. They’re used to show the negative consequences of drug abuse or excessive drinking: “Not just going to the hospital and being sick, but lost academic time, lost time from classrooms, lost time from other activities and potential criminal implications as well.”

5. How do you handle hazing?

Hazing, which has resulted in more than 50 deaths on college campuses since 2000, often involves excessive alcohol consumption, humiliation, isolation, sleep deprivation and sexual acts, according to research by Hank Nuwer, a journalist and Ball State University adjunct professor.

There is no federal hazing legislation, but 44 states have anti-hazing laws. Consequences and definitions of hazing vary by state, which means that colleges often handle the issue differently. Those found guilty of hazing could be removed from a student organization, suspended, expelled or face legal action.

Many colleges require students, especially those in Greek life or on a sports team, to take a hazing prevention training every semester or year.

“We are not where we need to be in higher education,” Healy says. “Some institutions are doing a great job, others are not. But all institutions need to be more thoughtful and intentional around policies, programs and sanctions for those who engage in either bullying or hazing activities.”

6. Who is the best point of contact if I feel unsafe on campus?

Emergency response varies on college campuses. But if a student is facing an urgent crisis, like being stalked or followed, the first point of contact should be law enforcement. That could be campus police, if a school has such a force, or the local police department, experts say.

For non-emergency situations, such as a roommate conflict, students can talk with their resident assistant, who can connect them with the necessary resources or staff on campus.

“No one should feel uneasy in their surroundings, because it’s going to impact their education,” says William B. Evans, executive director of public safety and chief of police at Boston College in Massachusetts. “If they’re not in a safe place, they’re not going to achieve the educational skills and the rich environment that a school offers. That’s not what parents are sending their child to a university to experience.”

Students should use precautions on campus similar to what they took at home, if not more, experts say. That includes locking doors, not leaving valuables out in the open, staying in groups when possible and heeding safety announcements.