Students Mostly Feel Safe on College Campuses, but Not Equally So

Creating more positive perceptions of safety and security involves understanding precollege experiences, which groups need strategic outreach and where the worries lie.

June 22, 2022
 
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College students are more than six times likelier to say they feel very safe on campus than to feel not too safe or not at all safe—and about twice as likely to have a great deal of trust in campus security than to have not too much or none at all, according to the latest Student Voice survey. But rather than simply take pride in the positive, the aim for many professionals involved in national conversations or local action related to campus safety and security is to understand which students don’t feel safe or don’t have trust—and then make efforts to change perceptions and experiences.

Female students, LGBTQIA+ students and students of color responding to the survey, conducted in mid-May by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, tend to feel less safe, and the latter two groups have had less positive interactions with campus safety officials compared to the full sample of 2,004 students.

“People’s perception is their reality,” says Chief Patrick A. Ogden, associate vice president for the University of Delaware Police and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA). ”There’s no one cookie-cutter approach, [but] we have to do everything we can to make our students feel safe.”

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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This summer, Ogden’s department is working on an officer liaison program to pair up officers with student groups to build relationships and trust. Individuals from each group will be asked to share about their backgrounds and experiences, and connections will ideally build from there.

The hope: when a safety concern comes up, another student may mention their group has a liaison and put the student in touch with that trusted officer.

Ogden’s 12 years at the university, background in a law enforcement family, experience as a state police officer and leadership positions for both IACLEA and the Delaware Association of Chiefs of Police have given him a rounded perspective of police reform possibilities, as distrust in police and the need for change have emerged as top national issues. “Campus policing is really at the forefront of what community members are calling for when they call for police reform,” he says. “A lot of what people want is already in place on campuses.”

As the father of a recent college grad and of a rising senior, Ogden also knows personally how much parents are counting on campuses to be safe places. “Most universities take that seriously. We can’t put a wall around our campus and make it a prison, but we do the best we can to educate students to keep them safe—and to have high-visibility patrols to make them feel safe and to deter crime.”

Ogden has seen major crime incidents decrease significantly at his university in recent years, “but I always say one is too many,” he explains.

Specific findings about demographic groups from the Student Voice survey include:

  • Just over one-third of LGBTQIA+ students feel very safe on their college campus, compared to about half of straight students. LGBTQIA+ students are also less likely to rate interactions with campus security as very positive, 19 percent compared to 33 percent of straight students.
  • Twenty-two percent of women respondents feel very safe in the area surrounding campus, compared to 33 percent of men surveyed. Women are also more likely than men to have considered campus safety a great deal when choosing a college, 34 percent versus 19 percent.
  • While 46 percent of all students say police officers on campus make them feel safer, just 37 percent of Black students agree—and one in seven Black students says the officers make them feel less safe.

The findings came as no surprise to Laura Erickson-Schroth, chief medical officer for the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to protect emotional health and prevent suicide for teens and young adults. “These are all groups that experience higher levels of harassment and violence, and they have reason to be fearful.”

Erickson-Schroth cites these concerns as evidence of the need to make extra efforts, ensuring policies and programs have “real effects on the safety of vulnerable students. College should be a place where all young people have the freedom to learn, to participate in activities and to make social connections without the threat of harassment or violence,” she says.

Creating such a place begins with better understanding which demographic groups are most likely to worry about their surroundings and distrust law enforcement, and why.

Perceptions of Safety

A Student Voice survey respondent from a Vermont institution who identifies as LGBT+ explained his safety issues on campus this way: “I’ve had other students follow me and yell slurs and threaten me.” Last year, he added, “my roommate accidentally outed me to the other guys on the floor. A few of them spent the rest of the year harassing me.”

Areas surrounding campus are the biggest concern for others. A student at a private university in Minnesota described the concern “that people from the city and surrounding area will come to our campus and do harm to students.” Incidents like that had already happened, but prevention measures don’t seem to be addressing the issue, the student noted.

Students at rural campuses report feeling the safest, with 55 percent feeling very safe on campus and 46 percent feeling very safe in the surrounding area. That’s in spite of rural college respondents being more likely to identify as LGBTQIA+ compared to the full sample. For students attending college in large cities, 36 percent feel very safe on campus and 20 percent feel very safe in surrounding neighborhoods. Students in small or medium cities or in suburbs tend to fall in between on responses, although their mind-set about safety in areas around campus is closer to those of students in large cities than to those in rural areas.

A rising senior at a college in a small city in Iowa pointed out the increase in homelessness around campus since they started there as a freshman. “This coincides with the recent increase in assaults, robberies and indecent exposures that myself and [other] students have had to endure.”

Gun violence is on the minds of college students, as it is for many Americans.

A student at an urban community college in Pennsylvania wrote, “There are constantly altercations that I hear about such as shootings, stabbings, etc. It has occurred to me that there is a possibility of someone unstable entering the campus and harming others.”

When students were asked to comment on their biggest safety concern on campus, they included the words “sexual” and “assault” most (13 percent and 12 percent of all comments), while 3 percent mentioned shootings. When asked about how often they think or worry about the potential for a campus shooting or other mass-casualty event happening at their college or university, “only when such an event comes up on the news” and “occasionally” got the most responses. More than one in 10 students has the worry at least weekly. (Education majors—the 94 survey respondents who will presumably be leading classrooms one day—are actually only half as likely than the full sample to think about it at least weekly.)

“It’s such a normal, consistent concern for students, something they’re just living with,” says Jessica A. Mertz, executive director of the Clery Center, a nonprofit that guides higher ed institutions in implementing effective campus safety measures, including meeting the standards of the Jeanne Clery Act, such as related to reporting crime data. “It’s hard not to imagine all these concerns will contribute to feelings of exasperating anxiety.”

Gianni L. Quattrocchi, Temple University’s student body president, refers to gun violence as “an omnipresent threat that we all have to contend with. … We can only prepare and hope that campus safety is there to stop it quickly.” In a Temple student government survey conducted early in the spring 2022 semester, 69 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the urban Philadelphia university is attentive to campus safety issues.

How do students express worries about gun violence? In Jeremy Munson’s experience as a student affairs administrator, “we hear about it most from our mental health counselors. [They’ll say] students are starting to get scared, it’s coming up in sessions all the time.” Or officials will hear about more specific threats by monitoring social media via hashtags or Google alerts of the institution’s name. “Students are not clamoring to have a conversation,” says Munson, who became associate dean for student affairs and the Title IX deputy coordinator at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania this year after having worked at an urban college near Baltimore. But an officer can only be dispatched to investigate a threat if officials know about it.

A related issue is seemingly harmless TikTok challenges, such as a recent one encouraging shooting people with water pellets from a BB gun, explains Ogden at Delaware. “Because a BB is classified as a weapon in the Clery handbook, we’re having to send out alerts,” he says. And that publicizes the challenge even more.

In some states and communities, meanwhile, students are less likely to be concerned about seeing any type of gun. In Utah, for example, gun owners can carry their weapons openly and generally don’t need a permit—and individual campuses can no longer mandate that firearms be concealed. Blair L. Barfuss, chief of police and director of public safety at Utah Tech University, says no one has reached out recently to report worry over a visible gun, and if he sees a student is carrying, he may just request discretion. “I fully encourage people to follow their constitutional rights, but I also want education and understanding and training and a bunch of other things. Firearms are firearms,” says Barfuss, whose institution was the first in the state to become IACLEA accredited—a process, according to the organization, only 71 of its 1,100 members have completed.

Law Enforcement Trust and Trauma

Just one-third of Student Voice respondents say they have a great deal of trust in their college’s campus safety and security staff, a reality that impacts actions students might take when an incident occurs. As one student at a New Hampshire university put it, “I think involving safety and security officers often escalates situations, and so most students hesitate to even call safety and security when they need help. There needs to be a way for [the department] to prove they are accountable to student needs, while also proving that their interest is not harming students further.”

The respondent called for students to be trained in de-escalating situations on their own so that security officers “are only called in the most extreme of circumstances.”

Campus security professionals are increasingly being reminded of how students’ precollege experiences with law enforcement may result in preconceived notions that police cannot be trusted.

When Munson of Lebanon Valley was at the Baltimore-area institution, he would hear about experiences such as “getting stopped by police on a traffic stop, and how humiliated those individuals felt, because it always turned into something more than a traffic stop. It always transitioned to something that it didn’t need to be. They felt treated as an animal rather than as a human being.”

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Nearly one-quarter of students surveyed say they experienced violence in or near their home growing up. Yet 43 percent of those respondents are not from cities, and nearly three-quarters are not from large cities. As Munson points out, campus officials should realize that nearly any student may have experienced that kind of trauma. “In rural America, we have some major drug problems. How parents interact with their kids when on opioids is much different than when off them.”

Having experienced violence in or around a childhood home did not significantly sway responses on how much trust students have in campus police. Likewise, those who had been stopped and searched by police growing up (n=244), had been incarcerated themselves or had a sibling or parent in jail/juvenile detention (n=171), had a parent/guardian or sibling arrested (n=196), or had a friend or relative injured by a police officer (n=153) do not trust campus police significantly less (and in some cases, these experiences resulted in slightly more trust in campus police).

On the other side of the equation, those who grew up with a relative or close family friend working in law enforcement (n=340) do not trust campus police more than the full sample.

Do police officers on campus generally make students feel more or less safe? Only 9 percent of respondents over all feel less safe around police, which could include officers employed by/at the institution or local police who may spend time on campus. But the less safe response jumps to 14 percent (one in seven) when looking only at Black students and to nearly one in five when filtered by LGBTQIA+ students.

“LGBTQ students are more likely than others to arrive on campus with a history of family rejection, bullying and other forms of trauma,” says JED’s Erickson-Schroth. “Once at school, they face increased harassment, discrimination and violence compared to other students.” Community connectedness and support, however, can reduce depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts in this population, she adds. And when institutional officials “pay attention to the safety of the most vulnerable students, they send a signal that they care about creating equitable environments in which all students can thrive.”

As Mertz of the Clery Center notes, trauma-informed responses for working with any student involve “recognizing lived experience and identifying how that will contribute to their need and perceptions of safety.”

For students who appear uncomfortable around campus police, Ogden of Delaware suggests being direct about officer intent. “I try to emphasize that we’re here to protect them, not to arrest them. It occasionally happens, but that’s not our primary goal.”

Encounters With Campus Police

Only about four in 10 Student Voice respondents had ever had an interaction with campus police or security, with one in four having had only a single interaction.

At Temple, says Quattrocchi, students tend to have not just interactions but good relationships with the security guards from an outside agency who contract with the university for building security. “They tend not to change their posts a lot.” Campus safety officers—although they might be seen tossing a football or Frisbee with students in green space around the Bell Tower—tend to be less known to students, in his experience. Student government collaborated with the safety department on an event this spring where students could meet and informally chat with officers.

While nearly seven in 10 of the survey respondents who have interacted with campus security say the experience was positive or very positive, Munson says departments might need to mend fences a bit due to COVID. “Campus police bore the brunt of trying to enforce COVID [policies].” Some students, he adds, may feel as if “they’re being targeted for being students.”

The service piece isn’t spelled out as an IACLEA accreditation requirement, but Barfuss at Utah Tech felt it was important to know how students perceived officers and interactions with them, so the department conducted surveys during the process.

“I didn’t really know but thought we were doing a pretty decent job trying to engage with our students, staff and faculty. [Results] came back very positive,” says Barfuss, who is moving over to Utah State University this summer and hopes to emulate some efforts at a larger institution.

Such efforts have centered around the expectation that officers maintain a positive presence in the campus community.

While the culture change has resulted in staff turnover, “we now have people who actually want that kind of environment … [who] want to be a people-engagement type of officer,” he says. “My officers go out to coffee with students on campus, take pottery classes with them on their own time, go to athletic events. It’s the direction our agency has gone.”

Coming next week to Student Voice: more survey results, with a look at actions and approaches that address student needs and wants for enhanced campus safety and security.

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