Ranking Colleges on Safety Won’t Protect Students, but This Checklist Will

Searching for a safe college campus? Here are 20 questions students and parents should ask.

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6. Does the college have a designated Clery compliance officer? This is a relatively new position in the world of campus public safety, and its duties keep expanding. In most cases, the officer should have no other duties except Clery compliance so that he or she will be able to devote the time and energy needed to do the job properly. Some of these responsibilities include working with the college’s Title IX coordinator and training security/law enforcement as well as other campus staff about compliance.

7. Does the college have a designated Title IX coordinator? Although most people associate Title IX with gender equality in athletics, its scope also includes sexual violence. Because the Title IX coordinator’s duties have greatly increased over the past few years, the position should probably not have other duties assigned to it besides Title IX coordination.

8. Is the campus’ police or security department adequately staffed? According to CS’ 2011 salary survey, the median number of public safety department employees was five for colleges with less than 3,000 students; 16 for schools with 3,000-5,000 students; 26 for institutions of higher education with 5,001-20,000 students; 41 for universities with 20,001-50,000 students; and 88 with more than 50,000 students. It should be noted that these statistics do not indicate whether or not these levels are actually optimal. (I’m unaware of any studies indicating the appropriate student-to-officer ratio.) If a college public safety department is understaffed, have they developed an appropriate working relationship with other local agencies, including police, emergency management and fire, so that there will be an appropriate and quick response to an incident? Even if the college public safety department is well supported and staffed, it is still a best practice for them to have mutual aid agreements with other jurisdictions to provide assistance during an emergency.

9. Is the campus public safety force adequately funded? This includes support for personnel, training, uniforms, weapons, equipment, vehicles, office space and software. According to James T. McBride, who was the director of public safety and chief of police at a Lakeland Community College for 25 years, the percentage of institutional budgets dedicated to campus police/ security averages around 2.5-3%. In light of the recent developments with Title IX and Clery compliance, however, that percentage has probably increased since the publication of McBride’s Campus Safety article in 2011. Prospective students and their parents should also ask about campus officer pay and benefits. How does the campus package compare to the pay and benefits of other officers in the surrounding area?

10. Does the campus police department incorporate best practices, and is it accredited by a reputable accreditation organization?
Best practices include the adoption of community policing; adherence to a code of ethics and regular training (see No. 11 below). Some of the accreditation bodies include the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) and the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA), as well as state and local accreditation organizations.

11. Do campus police and security personnel receive regular and frequent training on the following topics: National Incident Management System (NIMS), Incident Command System (ICS), lethal weapons (when applicable), less-lethal weapons (when applicable), Clery compliance, Title IX compliance, use of force/restraints, verbal de-escalation and conflict resolution techniques, security equipment training (for access control, video surveillance, emergency notification, etc.), active shooter response, Hazmat incident response, bomb threat response, CPR/first aid and racial/cultural/gender/sexual orientation/gender identity sensitivity?

12. Do non-security personnel and administrators on campus receive regular and frequent training on the following topics: how to identify at-risk individuals and concerning situations; information sharing with campus law enforcement and/or security; Clery compliance; Title IX compliance; NIMS; crisis intervention/verbal de-escalation?

13. Does the university allow anonymous reporting by campus public safety officers, staff and faculty, or provide some other way to protect whistleblowers from retaliation for reporting security and/or safety concerns? This type of policy might encourage greater buy-in and incident reporting from school employees, as well as guarantee that the campus public safety department remains unencumbered by top administration pressure to possibly sweep security issues under the rug. This approach might be particularly effective in institutions that have historically had an “it can’t happen here” cultural attitude about security.

14. Does the campus avoid using zero tolerance policies?
Zero tolerance policies, particularly with regard to the use of drugs and alcohol, can have a chilling effect on the accurate reporting of campus sexual assaults. This is because many victims are under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs when they are assaulted. If they had been in violation of a school’s zero tolerance policy while they were being assaulted, they often won’t come forward to report their victimization out of fear of being blamed by or expelled from the college. Zero tolerance policies might also discourage students with drug and/or alcohol addictions from coming forward and asking for help, preventing them from receiving the treatment they need.

15. Does the college’s police chief or top security executive report to an administrator high up on the campus food chain, such as the university president or CEO? This is one of the clearest indications as to whether or not a university is truly dedicated to safety and security.  If the top security/law enforcement administrator is way down in the organizational structure, students and their parents should probably look elsewhere. Another thing to consider is whether or not top campus brass have participated in any emergency exercises or safety programs. If they have, that’s a good sign that public safety and security are on their radar. It’s also a good sign if safety and security are featured prominently in a school’s long-term plan.

16. Has the institution conducted a threat and vulnerability assessment of the campus to determine what risks are present? This should be done at least every five years but preferably more often. The campus should conduct these assessments as circumstances dictate. Additionally, it is wise for these assessments to be conducted by teams that are not part of the university so they can provide a fresh perspective. Outside consultants, law enforcement and fire officials should be involved in this process.

17. Does the university have an emergency plan and a comprehensive emergency management program that is all-hazards based? This plan must be regularly updated and tested, and it should incorporate ICS. The plan and program must be wide enough in scope to address situations involving active shooters, severe weather, bombings, pandemic flu, Hazmat, evacuations, fire, power blackouts, terrorism, off-campus crises and more. Additionally, relevant emergency procedures must be made available to the college community, as well as local police and emergency management.

18. Does the school have robust emergency communications systems? When an emergency occurs, campus officials must have the ability to warn students, faculty and staff via multiple technologies, such as text messaging, loudspeakers/intercoms, fire alarms, digital displays, weather radios, phone trees and social media. Several technologies should be deployed so that the strengths of one system can compensate for the weaknesses of the others. All of the systems should be regularly tested to verify that they will work when needed. Additionally, campus police and/or security officers should be equipped with two-way radios that enable them to communicate with each other during a crisis, as well as with other, off-campus first responders.

19. Does the college incorporate security technology? Access control technology, or at the very least sturdy locks, should be installed in all residence halls, as well as on classroom doors and other areas on campus so that students, faculty and staff can lockdown quickly. Access control is critical for high-risk areas, including animal testing labs and locations with toxic chemicals or nuclear material. Video surveillance systems can be installed to expand the reach of law enforcement, especially in outlying areas (such as parking lots, walking paths, etc.) and on campuses with police or security departments that are understaffed. Security cameras can also assist law enforcement with investigations after an incident has occurred. Most life safety and security equipment should be backed up with appropriate generators and power supplies so that the campus and its occupants will continue to be protected in the event of a power outage.

20. Does the university incorporate security and safety into building design and campus landscaping?
College facilities departments should regularly trim trees and shrubs so they don’t block visibility or become areas where individuals can hide. Graffiti should be removed immediately to discourage gang activity. Additionally, code-compliant fire alarms and sprinkler systems should be installed. The campus should also have plenty of lighting at night so that students, faculty, staff and visitors walking to their cars at night are safe. Officers and/or other properly screened individuals who provide safety escorts to students during the evening hours are also helpful.

Once again, I encourage your input on this matter so that we can provide college students and parents with real information they can use to determine if their prospective college is safe and secure.

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Robin Hattersley Gray
Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach. Twitter: @RobinHattSmiles www.LinkedIn.com/In/RobinHattersleyGray
Contact Robin Hattersley Gray: rhattersley@ehpub.com
View More by Robin Hattersley Gray
Access Control, Background Checks, Clery Act, Dating Violence, Emergency Notification, Funding & Grants, Hazing

Comments:

By Thomas J. Hayden Jr on April 21, 2014

It’s somewhat disappointing that you fail to make any real mention of fire safety concerns despite the fact that fire remains a constant and common threat on many campuses.  While I agree with many of the items on your checklist, I would argue that ensuring design criteria includes a code compliant sprinkler system and alarm system would be more critical to safety that trimming the shrubs.

By David J Drummond, PhD, Affiliated Associate Prof, on April 17, 2014

Thank you for standing up to the counterproductive idea of ranking universities by safety.  For all the reasons you state, this would be at best an empty “feel good” gesture, but at worst it would detract colleges from the most important factors related to safety.

Your list is quite complete.  I would add nothing.  However, I would emphasize the importance of having a functioning threat assessment/management team.  Achieving and maintaining such a team is a huge challenge my experience with both universities and health care organizations. 

I was particularly please to see your comments about zero tolerance, a concept that has done more harm to safety initiatives than almost any other.  I shudder every time I encounter the term and unfortunately, years after many studies demonstrating its destructive effects, one can still find it in policies.

David Drummond