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.

Twelve politicians proposed last week that US News should not only rank American colleges and universities by academics, but also by safety.

At first glance, their proposal sounds reasonable. In fact, a few years back, Campus Safety magazine considered publishing just such a list. We could have received a lot of great press coverage and made a lot of money by creating this type of ranking system.

We chose not to create this list, however, because we realized it would be a disservice to students and their parents. We came to the conclusion that ranking colleges as the “most safe” or “most dangerous” was impossible because there are too many variables (campus size, location, number of students, culture, etc.) for the comparisons to be fair or accurate. Instead, it would just mislead the general public.

Most importantly, we realized that ranking colleges’ safety and security programs would actually make colleges more dangerous and reverse the progress made by victim advocates that have been working diligently to encourage colleges to report crime. For the full explanation of why I’m opposed to the safety rankings of colleges, please read my blog Publishing the ’25 Most Dangerous Colleges in America’ List Is Irresponsible.

In fact, my experience in reviewing rankings of any kind – be they “best colleges” or “best hospitals” or “most dangerous cities”  or “biggest party schools” – has led me to conclude that they all are bogus. They almost always rely on statistics that may provide some helpful information but don’t take into consideration nuances that surveys can’t measure. I suspect that an organization on any “best”  list probably just has a really strong marketing and PR program.

Instead of focusing on my opposition to the safety rankings of colleges, however, I’ve decided to provide a solution that will hopefully give the public a realistic way to evaluate the safety and security of a college they are considering. Below is a list of easy-to-understand questions I believe students and their parents should ask potential campuses.

I would like to invite your input on this list. Should anything be added that I am missing? If so, please email me your comments at RHattersley@EHPub.com.

Searching for a Safe College Campus? 20 Questions You Should Ask

1. Does the college or university have appropriate sexual violence prevention programs?
These might include bystander intervention training for students, athletes, coaches, staff, faculty, administrators, and fraternity and sorority members. Training should cover sexual assault, relationship violence, stalking, hazing, racial discrimination and LGBT issues. It should focus on creating a positive, supportive environment that does not condone overt or covert sexual violence or discrimination.

2. Do the school’s crime/Clery incident numbers make sense when taking into consideration the campus location and student population size? For example, it’s probably not realistic for a university with 50,000 students to only have three reported sexual assaults per year, considering that nearly one in four U.S. women will experience a completed and/or attempted rape during their college career. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, a higher number of sexual assaults reported may actually mean that students are safer because the campus is dedicated to transparency and victims feel they will be believed when they report an incident.

3. Does the college have an on-campus counseling center that is fully staffed and well-funded?
Because nearly one in 10 college students is receiving counseling from on-campus mental health professionals and because a significant portion of incidents involve perpetrators and/or victims with behavioral health issues, a well-supported campus counseling center is critical so that both students and campus employees can obtain treatment. Additionally, university counselors must collaborate with local or county mental health providers and make their campuses aware of the services that are available.

4. Does the campus have a multidisciplinary threat assessment team that can respond quickly to individuals exhibiting concerning behavior? Members of the team might be from law enforcement, mental health, legal counsel, residence life, student affairs and top administration. This committee reviews information provided by students, faculty, staff and the general public on individuals who may be engaging in threatening, dangerous or disruptive behavior. Threat assessment teams then recommend appropriate intervention strategies involving behavioral health, family and/or law enforcement.

5. Is a background check conducted on every staff member, faculty member and administrator?
Prior to employment, every job applicant (not just public safety personnel) should be screened. Some organizations even conduct checks on long-term employees on a regular basis (perhaps every five years) due to the fact that there may be something they’ve done since they were hired that indicates they are a threat to the institution. Additionally, some campuses have considered conducting background checks on prospective students, although discovering behavior that would indicate a student is at-risk is extremely challenging, in that most higher ed students are minors right before they enter college and their juvenile records are sealed.

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About the Author

robin hattersley headshot

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.

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