Back to School: Safety Considerations for College Public Safety Departments

Two college police chiefs share their tactics for promoting safety as students, faculty and staff head back to school.
Published: August 14, 2017

Click here for our K-12 back-to-school article.

Whether college officials are ready for it or not, we’re nearing the beginning of the fall semester, meaning hordes of new and returning students, faculty and staff members will be descending onto campuses around the country in the coming weeks.

To get some tips on promoting safe behavior and emergency preparedness during what is often a hectic time, Campus Safety spoke with Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) Police Chief Dan Dusseau and New Mexico State University Police Chief Stephen Lopez about best practices for public safety departments.

The Back to School Adjustment

Both chiefs agreed the summer represents somewhat of a change of pace on college campuses. Dusseau says there are fewer incidents on campus during the summer months while Lopez says the frequency of incidents doesn’t change, just the type of incidents.

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“We don’t change our staffing models but vacations and training happen a lot during the summer for us and for others around campus, so it can be hard to get major projects accomplished,” Dusseau says.

Whatever level of summer activity your college or university experiences, there’s many new challenges that come with campus communities heading back to school. Typically within days of each other, schools deal with new and returning students, faculty and staff members walking and driving onto campus, many of whom have only a hazy idea where they are going and no means to communicate with campus authorities if an emergency occurs.

Both chiefs stressed the importance of getting safety messages out to faculty and students as quickly and thoroughly as possible. NOVA police speak directly to staff and faculty members during a 30 minute convocation at the start of every academic year.

“One of the key messages is that their safety and the safety of their students may be dependent on their knowledge and actions,” Dusseau explains. “When an incident occurs, most students will look to the instructor for guidance, therefore it’s best not to wait for the “safety pop quiz.””

For adjunct faculty, NOVA hands out a single-page quiz designed to get them thinking about safety and summarizing the minimum things they need to know. Questions in the quiz are included below:

  • Is there an alert system on campus?
  • What are the survival strategies?
  • Who are the first responders?
  • When should you call the police/security?
  • How do you call police/security?
  • What other ways does the college address safety?
  • What is your obligation if you see or know about an event or crime?
  • What is the institution’s designated response to an active shooter?
  • Is there a police or security officer actually on your campus?
  • Do the police/security provide other services?

NOVA also sends faculty members a video that explains how and when to call police, discusses features police use for communication (like a mobile app) and services they provide such as escorts, safety courses and more.

Lopez says anti-theft and safe partying messages, among others, are given to returning NMSU students.

Don’t Waste the Summer

The time in which campus police get messages across is also an important consideration. Lopez says NMSU starts getting safety messages to new students before they even arrive on campus by reaching out to parents over the summer to encourage them to pass along basic safety messages.

“Unfortunately, students forget a lot of what they’ve been told since they were kids about safety because they get overwhelmed with the newness of everything,” Lopez says. “Having parents give them information is much more effective than us just lecturing; it reinforces our messages.”

NOVA police try to get safety messages out through as many channels as possible, and a specific person within the department is responsible for outreach efforts. NOVA police also host events like dodgeball tournaments and hold presentations on general topics.

Once new students get to campus, NMSU officers are easily spotted assisting students with directions, directing traffic and even helping students move into their dormitories.

“We’ve found that opportunity for one on one interaction to be really effective,” Lopez says.

NMSU police try to communicate with students in a piecemeal fashion and Lopez says they try to make the messages relate to the students as much as possible. Dusseau says NOVA has a similar approach.

“There is a tremendous amount of information we try to provide but we look to give it to them in dosages they can handle,” Dusseau says.

NMSU also holds a weeklong safety fair, and safety messages are sent all throughout September. Messages are coordinated by the NMSU Campus Safety Department in conjunction with local fire, environmental health and safety, HR, student government, the dean of student’s office and others groups.

The chiefs say the challenge of educating and training faculty is just as important as educating students.

“Faculty and staff have almost as much turnover as students,” Lopez says. “So we try to give them similar messages to our returning students. We’re letting them know what to look out for and in some cases un-training them and retraining them based on what they were doing at their last institution.

Finally, NOVA also has a Campus-Community Emergency Response Team (C-CERT) program to educate faculty and staff members about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact their work or living area. Additionally, the program trains them in basic disaster response skills such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization and disaster medical operations.

And after the school year finally gets rolling, event season starts! That means athletic events, concerts, student organization events and more ways for public safety departments to keep busy. Adding to the work, Dusseau notes that fall semesters in Northern Virginia coincide with tornado and hurricane season.

Overall, though, it’s important to remember the beginning of the school year is mainly a time for everyone to get acclimated to a new environment and settle into a different lifestyle.

“The beginning of the school year is an exciting time for students faculty and staff and we should share in that excitement, not try to overwhelm them or scare them,” Lopez says. “We should be excited to because it’s a great opportunity for us to create a safe campus culture.”

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