For many prospective college students, campus safety and security doesn’t emerge as a major factor in enrollment decisions. According to the Student Voice survey conducted in May, only 27 percent of undergraduates say they considered it a great deal. But for an additional 38 percent, it got some consideration.
That “some” response matches up with Gianni Quattrocchi’s experience in touring Temple University in Philadelphia before COVID hit. During that visit, he recalls getting the sense of it as a safe and secure urban campus. “There were security guards in every building and officers walking about,” says Quattrocchi, who grew up in a nearby suburb and was paying attention to how safe he felt because crime is more prevalent in cities. Safety worries and awareness living in an urban environment, he has found, are directly related to the type of hometown students are from.
Now in his third year at the university, Quattrocchi says that “as time goes on, students become more aware of the services offered and tend to use them more. Freshmen might be more scared or concerned about campus safety than seniors who have lived here and know how to go about keeping themselves safe.” For example, students can use an app to request a Temple shuttle pickup for a ride back to campus at night rather than walking the 10 blocks home from a party.
As the current student government president, Quattrocchi gets frustrated by how Temple gets portrayed in the news media. “Because Temple is such a large landmark, a lot of things are reported as being in Temple’s surrounding area. It’s by far a very safe school to attend.” In the university’s first student-driven campus safety survey, which the student government partnered with campus safety on in early 2022, 81 percent of respondents living in university-owned residence halls reported feeling safe in their area of residence.
Mirroring the Student Voice findings reported here, students at Temple say they feel safest on campus during the day, and safety concerns increase when walking on campus at night or when in the areas around campus.
Other highlights of the Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, include that:
- Thirty-seven percent of students feel very safe navigating campus roads and paths alongside cars, bikes and scooters, while just 3 percent feel not at all safe as pedestrians.
- When asked about how they would prioritize additional funds available for campus safety and security, students are drawn most to an indirect effort: expanding mental health supports to help prevent incidents. The second most identified priority from the list of 12 options is improved lighting on sidewalks.
- Students are most likely to grade their college a B on efforts to raise awareness about and minimize instances of students harming one another, such as through hazing or sexual assault.
Awareness about student safety experiences and perspectives can drive higher ed institutions’ efforts related to safety and security spending as well as creating a culture where students—even those who don’t enter college with trust in police—feel they can turn to the professionals focused on keeping them safe. Following are six approaches and actions to consider.
1. Be Transparent About Data and Policy
Utah Tech University’s Campus Safety Plan is what Chief of Police Blair L. Barfuss refers to as “a dedicated webpage for transparency alone. We publish every policy and procedure.” That includes links to its Clery Act–mandated annual safety report with statistics of campus crime and efforts taken to improve safety, as well as a daily crime log; policies about concealed weapons, officer investigations and victim/witness assistance; the campus safety training curriculum taken by student organizations and athletes; lists of recent campus safety efforts and planned ones; and more.
The “stamp of approval” from the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, one way Barfuss refers to his agency’s recent accreditation through the organization, also provides transparency in that the university’s operation is meeting industry standards.
The policy audit piece of pursuing accreditation, says Chief Patrick A. Ogden, president of IACLEA, serves as a road map for “keeping the agency out of trouble and your community safe. The whole goal is to make sure agencies are doing what the community expects.”
The Student Voice findings suggest that most students have a good idea about crime levels when they arrive as first-year students—with nearly two-thirds saying the level of safety they anticipated on campus matches reality.
In terms of whether prospective and current students and families are accessing campus crime data to form opinions about campus safety, Jessica A. Mertz, executive director of the Clery Center, isn’t sure. “Some schools do a better job of others in putting [the annual safety report] up front,” says Mertz, whose organization guides higher ed institutions in implementing effective campus safety measures, including meeting the standards of the Jeanne Clery Act. She’s more certain, however, about the shift in colleges being more open and public in seeing the report as an opportunity to inform the community not just about crime but also prevention efforts. “In most cases senior leadership recognizes the importance of this and why there is a need to be more transparent,” Mertz adds.
2. Help Make the Area Around Campus Safer
Institutions whose campuses are surrounded by neighborhoods with high crime shouldn’t think of the challenge as keeping students safe from those in the community, says Mertz. “I’d reframe that as: What are you doing as a campus to make the community safer?”
This spring, Temple University launched a grant program to give landlords of private residences in North Philadelphia funding for security cameras and better lighting. The effort is one action taken after the student safety survey, which found that respondents living in private housing on or near campus felt 25 percentage points less safe than those living in university-owned residence halls. In addition, says Quattrocchi, he has seen an increased security presence on and near campus since a student was killed in a 2021 attempted carjacking.
Busy streets are another common higher ed safety concern, with just over one-third of Student Voice survey respondents feeling very safe as a pedestrian on campus.
Solutions tend to involve partnering with local entities on pedestrian safety. Utah Tech works with the city of St. George and the Office of Highway Safety to run initiatives in areas such as distracted driving and DUI enforcement, plus partners with Amtrak to promote rail safety, since two sets of railroad tracks run through the city, explains Barfuss. “You can’t do all this stuff alone.”
The university is also cognizant of the popularity of electric scooters, which are a common mode of transportation around campus and the city, thanks to a St. George partnership with Spin. This spring, campus safety patrols monitored scooter traffic, stopping riders to give them a two-sided safety information card, and the initiative will pick up again in the fall, says Barfuss, who is leaving his post for Utah State University this summer.
3. Cultivate Relationships Between Campus Security and Students
While one-third of Student Voice respondents have a great deal of trust in their campus safety and security staff, that dips to fewer than one in four LGBTQIA+ students and fewer than one in five students who had negative interactions with police before college.
Holding a drop-in event where students can get to know campus safety officers, as Temple did this spring, is one way to build rapport—although Quattrocchi believes most of the students who attended likely “already had a favored or neutral view of campus safety. It’s harder to do outreach to those who might not necessarily like you.”
When Jeremy Munson, associate dean for student affairs and deputy Title IX coordinator at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, was at a Baltimore-area university in 2015, riots erupted in response to the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal injury during police transport after an arrest. Campus officials organized a town hall meeting so students could discuss their own experiences with city police officers. “We wanted to hear every single thing they wanted to share with us,” says Munson. “Letting students feel heard is the key ingredient. Without dialogue, you can’t grasp what is happening around the community.”
A second town hall event addressed questions posed during the first that couldn’t be answered on the spot. Then officials planned a third event with roundtables. At each, a safety officer, student conduct officer or other administrator sat with students, posing a set of questions to probe reasons for distrust of law enforcement and what the institution could do to help. “Our students were vulnerable in ways we didn’t expect. They wanted to engage in these intimate conversations, and we started to make changes they wanted to see,” Munson says. In addition, students had opportunities to shadow security officers to see firsthand how the event drove the response, not the race, gender or status of students involved. “It changed our culture and started to break down barriers and walls,” he adds. For example, students could be seen calling out to officers by name.
At Utah Tech, Barfuss says his department collaborates frequently with the vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, and he sees the Multicultural & Inclusion Center and Black student union as supporting organizations. “We have great relations with those students, and a trust that doesn’t exist with local law enforcement agencies,” he says. Yet diversity in hiring has been a challenge, with universities historically paying less than agencies elsewhere. Two of the university’s six sworn full-time officers reflect diversity in race, but gender diversity is still a work in progress. A recent female hire didn’t stay long, so currently the only women in the department are part-timers who work full-time for other agencies.
Ogden of IACLEA says understaffing is a common issue in campus safety departments, with one big issue being that “a lot of people just don’t want to be police officers anymore because of the scrutiny.” In his role as associate vice president of the University of Delaware Police, he has seen how a student cadet program can help fill roles and connect departments like his with students. The part-time employees patrol campus, provide safety escorts, secure buildings, monitor security cameras, work dispatch in the communications center and provide event security.
In the Student Voice survey, expanding staff with either armed or unarmed officers, or ensuring more diversity in security staff, emerged as top safety investment priorities by fewer respondents than other suggested options. More popular responses from the list of 12 items, from which respondents could choose three, include expanding mental health supports to prevent incidents, improving lighting on sidewalks and expanding safe and affordable transportation options. Black students are the most likely racial group to call for diversity in staffing, while they are the least likely racial group to want more armed security.
4. Add Visible Security, and More Visibility, to Campus Walkways
With one-third of Student Voice respondents looking for improved lighting on sidewalks and one-quarter wanting to see more security cameras, it’s clear that seeing safety deterrents and seeing the walkways and surrounding areas better are an important part of ensuring students feel safe.
“We’re primarily a walking campus,” says Munson of Lebanon Valley. “If students think that areas aren’t well lit and they’re scared, that’s a problem.”
While many officials consider emergency blue-light boxes antiquated, they do serve as visible signs to some current and prospective students (and families) that help can be called quickly to a precise location.
Lebanon Valley, says Munson, will begin to remove the boxes as they break down and, rather than replace them, invest more in crime-prevention efforts.
At the University of Delaware, meanwhile, the common traditional safety measure will remain. “We’re very overt about surveillance,” says Ogden, adding that the boxes are still occasionally used to report in-progress incidents. The institution’s leaders also favor signage that indicates an area is under surveillance. “Every time [students] turn around, there’s another sign,” he explains.
Utah Tech, meanwhile, just invested heavily in exterior video surveillance, which had been nonexistent, says Barfuss. “It gives a feeling of safety and security, and people, when they know they’re being monitored, typically act decently.”
5. Ensure a Connection Between Campus Safety and Mental Health Awareness
Although not an off-the-shelf solution to preventing crime, expansion of mental health supports to prevent incidents is seen by the greatest percentage of Student Voice respondents as a top priority.
“The mental health crisis on college campuses is what keeps me up at night,” says Munson, citing national upticks in suicidal ideation as well as deaths by suicide. “You don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night with a phone call saying your student committed suicide.” Providing safety officers with de-escalation training, as well as ensuring a counselor is always on call, are musts in Munson’s view. What institutions don’t want is an officer making a snap judgment like “you’re good, go back to your room.”
Barfuss, whose university experienced double the number of students committed involuntarily in fall 2021 compared to the prior three years, says that while mental health is not a law enforcement duty, officers must be equipped to respond to incidents involving students with mental health issues.
University of Delaware police have had training on de-escalation, but the existence of a student behavioral consultation team offers the opportunity to report a person to that team rather than the police, Ogden says.
6. Work to Minimize Instances of Students Harming One Another
Do students think their colleges are doing well in raising awareness about and preventing hazing and assault, including sexual assault? More than half of Student Voice respondents would grade their institutions with an A or B in this area, but the keywords “sexual” and “assault” appeared in open-ended comments more than any other topics.
A student at a public university in Texas wrote that “in the past year we have had an insane number” of sexual assaults on campus. She criticized the university for not updating the student population on what happened following an attack, and because one update communicated that the perpetrator had been expelled, she said, “I can only assume that these attackers remain on campus to harm others, or will go on about their life without any consequences and feel that they can assault someone again.”
Mertz of the Clery Center says that traditionally the biggest safety concerns have been related to off-campus happenings. “It was hard to get people to think about sexual assault and hazing, things happening with the campus community itself.”
Munson of Lebanon Valley spoke about respectful relationships and sexual misconduct at colleges across the country as part of the Respect My Red initiative, led by Katie Koestner, a national expert on student safety and healthy relationships who speaks about being a campus acquaintance-rape victim at age 18. Joint presentations featured role-playing sketches about a sexual assault, he explains. Through discussion, the audience determined if what occurred was an assault, and then additional presentation content covered state laws, campus policies, consent and what a Good Samaritan might have done to intervene.
As a former athlete and college coach, Munson has been sent to colleges to speak with their athletes. “There can be a lot of toxic masculinity in male locker room, and trying to combat that is something that I try to help with,” he says.
For smaller institutions that don’t have the resources to provide sessions like this, Munson suggests partnering with a local rape survivors’ center or crisis center. “Most come out for free.”
At Lebanon Valley, new grant funding is being used to support the project Give Respect, Get Respect: Comprehensive Support for Preventing Sexual Violence at LVC, which is broadening campus understanding of the issue, supporting victims and creating a data-driven system to inform all aspects of the program. Education efforts will include the consent-focused myPlaybook Sexual Violence Prevention student training program.
In terms of campus police handling sexual assault reports, Barfuss says the fact that every officer on his force is a certified sexual assault investigator—which requires a weeklong course—ensures everyone is following best practices. Utah Tech offices can work with students reporting an off-campus sexual assault to help them decide whether they prefer the local police department or his public safety department to investigate. “More times than not, they choose us to handle it,” says Barfuss. “We have more [student] trust.”
When Barfuss’s team has offered self-defense courses to women on campus, they “max out with attendees every time,” he adds.
As campus safety departments make every effort to build trust, staff appropriately, enhance safety and prevent crime, Ogden notes that it’s incumbent upon students to “take some time to pause and think about their own personal safety.”
He likens it to wearing a seat belt, because an accident could happen to anyone at any time. “You can’t prevent every incident, but you can walk with a group at night and stay on well-traveled paths. At the end of the day, we want our students to come in and meet all their educational initiatives and desires and to have a great experience at college, with fond memories.”
Read more about the Student Voice survey on campus safety and security, including an analysis of which demographic groups of students are less likely to feel safe and trust in campus safety officers.