By Renee Patton · April 10, 2017
Colleges and universities must develop a security strategy that protects the heart of their campus: students. Digital tools can help schools improve their physical security posture, but how do campus officials know what’s right for their particular institution?
With thousands of different technology options, it can be overwhelming for decision- makers and IT teams to determine the best fit. Integrating new technologies into a school’s current, traditional campus security strategy can be daunting as well.
The good news is that two campuses have been paving the way in system integration. Teams at the University of San Francisco (USF) and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) have researched, tested, implemented, tweaked and improved their campus security plans and have experienced positive results. Their successes can serve as a roadmap for other schools looking to upgrade their own security strategies and execute system integration.
Both Campuses Use a Multilayer Security Strategy
The USF’s main location is a 52-acre hilltop campus situated within one of the biggest and busiest cities in America. The urban San Francisco location means that student safety is of particular importance. However, USF needs to balance its desire to protect its students, faculty and staff with a feeling of openness on campus.
“We want our community to not just feel safe but to actually be safe,” says Golden Venters, USF’s director of student housing and residential education. “We want them to function in ways that feel natural and normal, and to focus their attention on what they’re here to do, which is to grow, to learn and to thrive.”
To achieve this goal, the school takes a holistic approach to security.
USF looks at campus security from all angles by integrating its security team. At many colleges there is a box surrounding physical security that keeps it separate from the IT department. In order to improve campus safety, USF insisted that all security groups work closely together. In 2009, it consolidated these units into one office that combines security technology teams from across the enterprise who report directly to the department of public safety.
These new structures are a model other schools can follow. The flexibility allows individual team members to focus on their areas of expertise, but the consolidation makes it easy to share information and coordinate security responses.
Beyond integrating its security team, USF also takes a comprehensive approach to its campus safety strategy, focusing on three layers: prevention, detection and forensics. In the prevention layer, security relates to access, usually utilizing tools like key cards to control access to buildings. One of USF’s biggest challenges in the prevention layer was controlling access to college residence halls.
“Students tend to move around campus in groups,” explains Jason Rossi, USF’s director of one card and campus security systems. When one student uses an ID card to open the front door, a mob of others might follow without presenting their own cards, an incident known as “tailgating.” “Tailgating is very common, and difficult to control,” Rossi says. “That makes it hard to know who is in the residence hall at any given time.”
USF had already been controlling access to residence halls in the traditional ways, with video surveillance cameras, ID cards and a front-desk attendant. “But checking every ID card just isn’t practical when 20 students enter the building at the same time,” Rossi says. “We decided to use technology to do the job better.”
Given this challenge, the committee decided to put USF’s existing video solution to work in a new way: facial recognition.
Previously, the video surveillance system was used to identify unauthorized entrances to a building and to track that person down after the fact. The university decided to move video into the prevention layer, using it to monitor entrances to residence halls and prevent someone from entering, if need be. This digital surveillance tracks students’ faces against a database to ensure that people entering the building have a photo in the system.
The new campus security system allows USF to track movement without making students alter their behavior, which was one of the school’s key goals. Now, if someone walks in who doesn’t live in the residence hall, the front-desk attendant is shown their image and alerted to ask for their ID. “We’ve made an unmanageable situation manageable,” says Rossi.
VCU Has Collaborative Security Strategy for Campus Safety
VCU has grown rapidly in recent years and is spread out across two campuses. The school is located in the central part of downtown Richmond, Va., putting it at the hub of activity and incoming traffic. Providing for more than 32,000 students on-campus can be a challenge for any community, but VCU’s location means both opportunities and concerns skyrocket.
Due to the increasing number of researchers coming to VCU, the school decided to develop a new security strategy that had an edge — a system that could help VCU and the Richmond police department catch criminals and secure the campus.
Much like USF, VCU also engaged stakeholders from multiple parts of the security spectrum — including the police department, the facilities management division and the technology services division — to help develop a holistic, cutting- edge security strategy.
“Our goal was to secure our environment, and since we’re an urban university, it was critical to involve several parties to maintain that level of service,” says Alex Henson, chief information officer at VCU.
The team planned a “backward deployment.” Beginning with the results they hoped to achieve, the team designed a surveillance plan that could achieve a single goal. The end result was a plan centered on a network of video surveillance technology across campus, which would be both a deterrent for crime and a way to close cases.
For the VCU police, one of the main objectives of the surveillance project was to use video as an investigative tool in the event that there was a crime on campus. And for the VCU technology team, the video was also flexible and scalable, mounting differently but easily across all of the diverse structures contained on campus.
Ultimately, there were more than 15 people involved in the decision-making process when it came to the design, the incorporation of surveillance solutions and the technical aspects, including the impact on the network. The school tested multiple options before selecting an IP approach that would complement its current network and could scale as the university expanded.
Now, VCU is seeing huge results from the system. Campus police are closing roughly 19 out of 20 robberies that occur on VCU property. Compared to current data being released by U.S. metropolitan public universities, this near 100-percent closure rate is unrivaled. In addition, the school experienced a 44 percent reduction in robberies on its core campus during the last academic year. The new surveillance system also resulted in the capture of 209 incidents where positive video evidence was found — that timing correlates directly with the launch of the school’s new security strategy.
Today, VCU boasts a 95.5 percent safety perception rate from its students. The feeling of safety and security on campus is contributing substantially to the overall improvement of the school and the attraction of even more students, helping VCU continue its rise as one of the nation’s top research institutions.
Here’s Your Roadmap to a Successful Security Strategy
What can your school learn from these two examples? To start, make sure you approach security on campus from all angles. Both USF and VCU involved multiple stakeholders in the planning and decision- making stages to ensure their final security strategies covered all bases and provided solutions for challenges from every perspective.
Another lesson is to form a deliberate approach. These schools developed committees to discuss the problems that could arise, and the results they wanted to see. The committees then created comprehensive strategies for their entire security posture, considered multiple solution options, outlined the exact criteria they needed security technology to meet and tested multiple options before deploying. This thoughtful approach to campus safety plans contributed directly to success on campuses.
Last but not least, a big success factor of these strategies is that they don’t interrupt normal campus life. Video technology and digital tracking help keep the campus secure without putting any undue burden on the students. They are able to focus on what they came to school for without worrying about safety — every college or university’s ultimate goal.
Renee Patton leads U.S. Public Sector Education for Cisco.