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Oriented Toward Safety

August 7, 2007
Laptop theft, underage drinking and sexual assault are the typical crimes that are discussed at college orientations, but some institutions, hoping to answer questions before parents ask them, are adding detailed campus safety briefings -- for both students and parents -- to their introductory programs.

Since the April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech, colleges have faced heightened concern about violence.

Though by no means universal, some colleges have intentionally added more discussion of safety concerns to their orientation programs, while others have worked on training their orientation staffs to be able to answer security questions should someone ask. On other campuses, however, the security component of orientation agendas is no different than it has been in the past, administrators confident that their existing programs are sufficient.

The University of Dayton’s orientation, which begins Aug. 18, will have a new “emphasis on talking to the parents … trying to give them information about safety on campus,” Cilla Bosnak Shindell, a university spokeswoman, said. “There’s been an intentional shift in the orientation program to talk more about personal safety and include more of the big picture about what kind of systems we have in place to prevent and deal with an event like Virginia Tech.”

Bruce E. Burt, Dayton’s director of public safety, said in a statement that “with the Virginia Tech tragedy, there is more concern this year … Parents want to know, ‘Are my kids safe?’ ” Burt plans to detail the university’s security measures in a presentation more extensive than ones he has given at past orientations, describing the campus’ emergency alert and door access systems, among other security mechanisms. Mental health issues, though, have not gained more attention in the university's orientation schedule.

The State University of New York at Binghamton was proactive in its approach to campus security at this year’s orientation programs which have been held throughout the summer. The orientation had traditionally included a session on safety and wellness, which administrators split into two, because “in light of Virginia Tech we thought parents would be asking more questions,” said Ken Holmes, assistant vice president for student life. “We err on the side of safety, so we had to provide information and allow a lot more time for questions.”

Parents asked whether a shooting would be handled differently at Binghamton than at was at Virginia Tech and “we answered honestly,” Holmes said. “We would never have said we could have handled it better than Virginia Tech because we really don’t know. All we can say is, we have precautions in place and have added more since that shooting.”

He added that Binghamton’s incoming students were “far less probing than their parents” on issues of campus safety, but that orientation staff nonetheless informed students of the safety measures in place there and encouraged students to seek out counseling services on campus.

Virginia Tech, the epicenter of concern, ran two-day orientation programs over the course of three weeks in July that included few references to the tragedy that hit the campus in the spring and even fewer questions.

Rick Sparks, director of new student orientations, led a moment of silence for the shooting victims at the start of each two-day session and offered an optional session run by campus police to address the shootings and the campus’s safety precautions. “Surprisingly, very few people came,” he said.

Interest among parents and students about what happened on campus in April was limited, Sparks said. “If anything, some of my students on staff were asked what it was like for them to be here when it happened.”

Had there been more questions, the staff would have been able to answer them. “We trained our orientation leaders extensively.… We prepared them to answer questions very, very well,” he said. “Even here, where the event happened, we didn’t have too many people asking about it.”

On other campuses, too, security has been no more of a concern to parents this year than it has been in the recent past.

The University of Florida, where in 1990 five students were murdered in their off-campus apartments, has long emphasized safety in its orientation programs. This year, though, the university has “added a few things to complement what we already said about safety to parents and children,” Ann Becks, director of new student programs, said. At an optional panel discussion where the parents of incoming students could ask questions of current parents, the only security-related question that parents asked was directed to a parent who happened to be a police officer. “They asked him, ‘What’s your sense of campus safety as a parent?’”

Other than that, there weren’t many questions from parents or students, Becks said. “We trained our student staff on how to handle questions about general campus safety. We instructed them on how to address concerns like, ‘Why can’t you lock down the campus?’ and ‘How can students be alerted if something’s happening?’ But for the most part we haven’t heard those questions.”

The same was true at American University, in Washington, where the staff was prepared to answer questions about campus safety during the institution’s two-day orientation sessions that ran throughout June and July. “We spoke to our orientation staff about the mechanisms AU has so they’d be aware of our safety precautions if someone asked about them,” Tiffany Sanchez, director of new student programs, said. “But as far as we’ve heard, the questions weren’t really asked.”

Besides preparing orientation staff to field the sort of questions the Virginia Tech shootings could have provoked, American “didn’t add anything new about safety to orientation,” Sanchez said, explaining that the orientation program for parents already included a “very comprehensive” session on campus safety.

Another big-city institution, Columbia University, is not making any changes to its orientation program to reflect the Virginia Tech shootings. “We’re in a very different environment here, so I think people aren’t really thinking about something similar happening here,” said Jenny LeRoy, an orientation coordinator for Columbia’s Barnard College. “The dangers are less campus-based and much more out in the city.”

LeRoy said there are “always a lot of concerned parents” worried about the safety of their children on college campuses. “I don’t anticipate that being any different this year.”

 

 

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