Want to Attend a Safe College? 10 Questions You Should Ask

Here’s some advice a retired community college police chief gives to parents and their children who are shopping for colleges and universities.

When parents or students seek the “best”  college or university for the money, campus safety and security should play a major role in their final decision. Why? Because new students are in a brand new higher-ed world with minimal adult supervision, and their vulnerability increases substantially until they become aware of the new dangers and temptations in their lives. Over time, even the more seasoned and experienced college students become complacent, thereby increasing their exposure to potential risks and threats. Unfortunately, some criminals specialize in campus-related crime.

Some institutions devote more resources to student safety and security than others. Simply put, when safety and security criteria are not given some priority by parents or students during the decision-making process, any tragic situation that might subsequently develop can be credited (at least partially) to a lack of adequate personal planning.

The components of an adequate and reasonable campus safety and security program are strategic planning; CEO participation; risk and threat awareness; emergency planning; community policing philosophy; professional staffing and training; background checks; professional networking; crime data processing and sharing; and  adequate budgeting.

Asking the following questions will help students and their parents determine if an institution of higher education is really serious about safety and security. College administrators might also want to review these questions to determine if their campus public safety programs are adequately supported.

1. Does the prospective institution have a strategic plan? Strategic planning of some sort occurs at every college and university in the country, but do many institutions of higher education actually include the terms “safety and security” in them? Does your prospective institution have a strategic plan? Will they share it with you?  Does it mention safety and security? Stay away from institutions that don’t mention these important items because they obviously don’t see your safety and security as a long term goal or objective worthy of note.

2. Does your prospective college or university have a chief executive officer (CEO) who is “into” safety and security? Because of tragic events over the last several years, safety and security has become a primary management function on the American campus. So, does the campus CEO have any homeland security training as a public official or private executive? Does he or she participate, even occasionally, in any type of campus safety workshop or program? What is the relationship between the CEO and the chief law enforcement or public safety officer in the institution? Is the public safety chief buried in the organizational structure or featured as a prominent part of the institution’s operations? Does the CEO meet with the campus community occasionally to discuss their safety and security? Or do such meetings occur only after a tragedy has occurred? Here’s an important hint: if the CEO doesn’t care about safety and security, neither does his or her staff of campus executives and officials. Their agenda likely includes many other things, and they happily leave the protective duties to others far below them in the organizational structure.

3. Has the institution conducted a comprehensive risk and threat analysis in the last five years? If not, campus safety and security efforts may be inadequate. Current standards suggest that institutions should hire a professional consultant or team every five years to review all hazards, risks and threats that may affect the institution, employees, students and visitors. Without such an assessment, the protective effort may be ineffective and inefficient. Do you want to attend an institution where the officials are guessing about potential dangers and ways to protect you? Probably not, so keep this in mind when you visit prospective campuses. College officials should be willing and able to discuss their risk and threat assessment program with you (and your parents if necessary).

4. Does this institution engage in emergency planning? If so, at what level? Who is in charge of emergency planning on this campus? Is the planning adequate in scope? Is it done by trained professionals? Does it meet current standards? Are the plans tested on a regular basis? Are plans evaluated on a regular basis? Is this campus “networked” with local first responders? Does this institution have a budget for emergency planning? Does it have a crisis communication system that can reach students and employees during an emergency? If most of the answers to these questions are “no”, you may want to look elsewhere for a safer environment.

5. Do the police or public safety personnel on campus engage in “community policing”?  Is the public safety or police force professional enough to know the difference between “traditional policing” and “community policing”? Is the department proactive or reactive? Is the department adequately staffed and funded? Is it culturally diverse? Does the department have adequate money to conduct necessary staff training? Does it conduct educational workshops? Does the campus police force reach out continually to the students, faculty, staff, administrators and visitors? Is there a crisis intervention team in place to identify and support students suffering emotional emergency needs? Is the security force strongly and openly supported by the college or university CEO and his or her staff? Is the department networked and respected by other local public safety agencies? If the answer to most of these questions is “no”, consider another option for your own safety. 

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