The population of a college or university campus is constantly moving and in a constant state of transition that requires its security directors to change as well. Just ask Fred Behr, director of Public Safety at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. “We operate in an ‘artificially created community’ where each year, 25 percent of our population changes and the majority of our population are 17 to 23 year olds,” he says. 
“We have an open environment that encourages visitors and city residents to come to our campuses and utilize our facilities. The residential aspect of our communities, unlike many other security settings, also brings special challenges. The needs of residential students are different in that they require safety and security services 24 hours a day. These services include safety escorts, building access, crime prevention, patrols, criminal investigations, medical emergencies, vehicle assists and parking/traffic management.”

The total number of residential students at public and private colleges also varies widely, he notes, and is not necessarily correlated to total student enrollment. For example, a campus with 3,000 students may have 2,800 students living on campus, but you will also find a campus with 8,000 students that may only house 1,000 students. “In order to create an effective safety and security plan, it is essential for the security agency to develop ‘partnerships’ with students, student organizations, residence life staff, faculty, athletics, conference and events, and a host of other entities within the campus community,” he tells Security magazine. “Over the past 10 years, campus health services and counseling centers have seen their patient/client numbers jump dramatically. Many institutions are moving toward 24/7 staff of these areas to meet the demand of all enrolled students, but primarily residential students.”

Not only must colleges and universities provide services and protection on their institutional property, but efforts to extend services off-campus is necessary, Behr says.

The ability to reach all of these students, regardless of their location, is a daunting task, Behr notes. “Prior to Virginia Tech, most campuses and universities relied on calling trees, e-mail and even hard copy postings in high traffic areas. They soon discovered the significant delays in e-mail caused by an ineffective infrastructure, and the fact that many web sites crashed because of the volume of hits. Since Virginia Tech, this issue has become central to campus safety.” 

Behr says that most campuses have developed a “layered plan” and rely on a “tipping point” to notify community members of an on-going threat. A single notification system simply is not sufficient to meet the needs on a college campus, he says, adding that “Intercom systems certainly work well in many applications but on most campuses, they are typically confined to a few high traffic buildings, mainly commons areas and athletic venues. Now you will also see scrolling information boards, flat screen displays, loud speaker systems (both voice and tone) and notification systems that deliver text messages to cells phones and post messages on e-mail. Everyone is using technology to provide the most comprehensive notification system for their communities.”


One way that Jacksonville State University (JSU) is preventing incidents is through use of biometric readers at perimeter doors in its 10 residence halls. JSU has 1,600 students on its Jacksonville, Ala. campus. The SMS from AMAG Technology, forces students to key in a unique ID number and place their hand on the biometric reader to gain access into their residence hall. 
Kevin Hoult, JSU, director of Housing and Residence Life, says, “Students must enter their student identification number into the keypad and then scan their hand to gain access to their hall. Anyone can get another student’s ID card and use it. Students know their own ID number and of course, always have their hand with them. The one to one verification makes the process faster in processing time and also more reliable and more secure by reducing false positives and false negatives.”

Hoult felt protecting the perimeter doors was a cost-efficient option, as opposed to adding readers to every individual student’s room door. It was not financially feasible to implement access control on each and every room door.

Parents also like the security system, says Hoult. On occasion, the Residence Life Department receives a call from a parent claiming they have not heard from their son or daughter. The Department refers to these calls as “wellness checks.” The Symmetry system activity report and cardholder record are checked to see the last time someone used the system. If a student has been entering or leaving the building, the transactions are logged into the system. The Department then notifies the student to call home.

A Little Knowledge Goes A Long Way

Consider the importance of perception. Richard Jewell, a security officer stationed in during the 1996 Olympics, discovered a pipe bomb at a crowded downtown venue. He notified police and helped evacuate the area, saving lives.  But Jewell became a suspect for the bombing. Later, he was exonerated when Eric Rudolph confessed to the bombing. For both Richard Jewell and the public, perception was reality, and the impact on those involved was very real. Eventually, when the truth surfaced and the facts were told, perceptions were realigned to fit the new reality.


The Richard Jewell example illustrates the importance of critical thinking with a sharp focus on reality and filtering out perceptions. In school and university environments, perception may add to a feeling of insecurity among students – whether accurate or not – thus resulting in distractions, disinterest, and an overall inability to focus on learning. 


While perceptions are widely and regularly measured in the political arena through polls, surveys that collect perceptions about security in and around a school are rare. Still, measuring perceptions about security in and around the school is important to complete the overall picture.


Survey Features: Quick and Anonymous


Anonymous crime surveys distributed to students, parents and staff is a way to collect and measure perceptions of security at school. By making the survey anonymous, administrators and security directors can solicit honest, uninhibited feedback. Students, in particular, are much more likely to share their true feelings and knowledge if they know they will not be singled out as a snitch. Similarly, staff and parents may feel more comfortable sharing feedback anonymously without fearing repercussions against their children, students, or jobs. The condition of anonymity yields more honest results.


Convenience is critical to generating a strong response from a survey. Because all respondent groups are presumably invested in the school community, a brief explanation at the beginning of the survey should explain the value of the results and how they will help create a safer, more comfortable learning environment. Also, surveys distributed electronically are generally the most convenient. Respondents can complete the survey on their own timeline, 24/7 and submit responses online, without having to keep hard copy papers and forms. 

Survey Design: Keep It Simple


Survey design is important for ensuring strong participation and good results. The best surveys are brief, with simple, one-part questions and consistent answer banks to make progressing through the survey quick and easy.


Because the goal is to understand perceptions of crime, the survey should be worded to ask respondents their opinions about threats on campus. “How often would you say the following types of crimes occur on campus?” The answer bank could read: “Always, sometimes, rarely, never.” Then a long list of different crimes and unacceptable behaviors can be listed below.


Identify Areas


While security directors are generally extremely in-touch with security issues on campus, there is a possibility that some activities are occurring on or around campus without their knowledge. Some crimes are not reported by students out of fear or humiliation such as sexual assaults.


Uncover Concerns           


While perception may not be reality, it influences where money is spent, and where attention and resources are directed. Security directors can use the results of the survey to identify and address concerns voiced by the community and dispel rumors and myths, and bring to light more serious issues that deserve attention and concern.


Measure Success


Conducted on an annual basis, anonymous crime surveys can be used to track issues and perceptions over time. They are also a great tool for measuring the impact of security communications campaigns.  


Overcoming Opposition


Anonymous crime surveys are simple and inexpensive to configure and administer, so why aren’t more schools doing them? For some, it could be as simple as something they have never before considered. For others, opposition stems from fear and liability concerns. Yet, the sin of not knowing is more condemning than a program that is in the process of implementation.                     
Information courtesy of Jeff Floreno of Wren Solutions.