Student-Initiated Safety Checks

Student-Initiated Safety Checks

When cellphones become safety monitoring devices, students, parents, and administrators can worry less.
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Picture these scenarios:

At 1 a.m., a student heading back to her dorm after a late-night study group skips the shuttle, opting for a cross-campus walk, sans company, instead.

On his way back to campus after a party, a muscular athlete with a fear-nothing image gets a little spooked and thinks someone may be following him.

A student, whose friends have already headed to another destination, has "one too many" at an urban bar 12 miles from campus and thinks she might pass out.

For most college students (and their institutional leaders, who not only care about their students but also don't want another "statistic" on record), a safe ending to the above stories would require a little luck.

At Montclair State University (N.J.) (www.montclair.edu), global positioning system tracking technology is providing some additional peace of mind.

It all begins with a cellphone. A student feeling unsafe can simply activate a time on his or her GPS-enabled phone, setting the timer at anywhere from five to 70 minutes. That's the time the student thinks it will take to get out of the potentially unsafe situation.

The student is alerted when time is nearly up. Unless the timer is deactivated by then, the campus safety department officers will be signaled to investigate. Best of all, they know exactly where to go.

The tool, called Rave Guardian, is one of a suite of mobile phone applications for college students from provider Rave Wireless (www.ravewireless.com) that are being used by Montclair State and other institutions. Montclair is the first to pilot Rave Guardian, with a trial that began in the spring 2006 semester and a full rollout for its 2,148 freshman set for the 2006-07 school year. About 900 sophomores and 400 upper-class students who have voluntarily subscribed will also have access to the program.

The implementation of Guardian and other Rave applications started with an observation by Montclair State administrators that's backed up by Rave and other research: One almost sure thing about college students today is that one can find them walking around with cellphones. One national 2005 Student Monitor study found that 90 percent of U.S. college students are using them.

"The cellphone had clearly become the critical mechanism in terms of their relationship to the world as they were pursuing their studies as university students," says Susan Cole, president of Montclair State since 1998. "Young people regard e-mail as an obsolete technology that they only use to talk to old people. It's an astonishing fact. They've moved on, and we're trying this time not to follow but to get ahead." In fact, she believes that offering the Rave applications did mean the university had gotten ahead of the curve, even if it was only "for one second in time."

The cellphone, adds Ed Chapel, associate vice president for Information Technology, is "the single best tool for bringing information to our students in a push sort of way" because it's a tool they're using naturally.

Montclair State's campus profile and its administrators' philosophy about having an open campus made the institution an ideal place to give Rave Guardian a try.

With about 12,000 undergraduates (about 3,100-3,200 of whom live on campus), the school's aim is to have porous boundaries between it and the surrounding residential community. "We don't want walls between the university and the community," Cole says.

It's located just 12 miles from midtown Manhattan, with the city's skyline visible from campus ("Our students stood and watched the Towers come down" on 9/11, Cole shares). With a train station within walking distance, that's a major draw to students, who find themselves in the Big Apple all the time. "New York is part of our campus," Cole says.

Yet, as Karen Pennington, vice president for student development and campus life, says of the 200-acre official campus, "The place never stops." With 24-hour shuttle service, a 24-hour diner, and a 24-hour computer lab, seeing students walking around at any time of day or night would not be uncommon.

"This is a very safe campus, but no place is safe and without problems," Pennington notes, adding that Rave Guardian is a tool to help make students feel a bit safer. "The other thing is, you don't have to let anyone know that you're afraid."

Lest anyone wonder about privacy issues, the Guardian tool was devised so that even campus police officers don't know who sets off the timer until it is not deactivated in time and the "case ticket" on their screen in the security office becomes active. "If you get to your destination safely, no one knows where you are," says Sergeant Paul Giardino.

Once a file is active, the officers can get the cellphone's location and learn pertinent information about the student. "This is 10,000 times more information than we've ever had," says Sergeant Giardino.

First an officer will call the student's cell to ensure everything is all right. If need be, the department can dispatch officers to that student's location. Right now, they can get the exact location based on where the phone was seven to 10 minutes prior to the alert (although Giardino says they're working on adjusting that to as low as three minutes).

If the student is off campus, the department can alert local authorities to the situation and share the GPS location.

Cole explains that they feel a responsibility to students not just when they're on campus but as they are going about their daily lives, whether that's at a nearby off-campus job or even socializing in New York or elsewhere. "It's very hard to say that your students cease to be your students the moment they step off campus. They're our students. We care about them wherever they are," she says.

Guardian also fits in with a message the institution strives to have students understand: Call university police if you have a problem, even if you're not sure it's the right department to call.

"We make it so students report what they see, what they're concerned about. They're being independent. This provides a mechanism that is their favorite mechanism to use in the entire world to enable them to do that," Cole adds.

Student Travis Misurell, who works in the Campus Connect store at Montclair State where students go to sign up for Nextel mobile plans that include Rave tools, validates that viewpoint. "Everyone thinks GPS is so cool," he says.

Still, administrators want to be sure that incoming students have enough advance notification about the program. That's why freshman orientation this year included passing along information about Rave applications and how cell phones maximize their use.

Chapel, who has spoken to dozens of other institutions inquiring about the Montclair State implementation, advises that others prepare incoming students as early as possible and take care in doing so.

Early communication provides students with more lead time to negotiate existing mobile phone contracts and such. And, Chapel says, "you want to be systematic about how you advertise what the program is all about. It's not a cellphone requirement. It's a requirement for a tool that will help students integrate into campus in many different ways. Many of the applications can be seen on a typical desktop interface."

Chapel views the entire Rave suite of tools--which allow communication with students about campus happenings, academics, and planning, as well as give students the chance to see, for instance, the actual location of the campus shuttle in real time--as a portable information kiosk. "We're able to reach our students and engage our students anytime, anywhere in the single most expeditious way available," he says.

That will come in handy on days with inclement weather, Cole notes. "No matter how many communications you have in place, you can never get agreement about whether or not the campus is open or closed when it snows. This is a way of saying, 'Yes, it's snowing and yes the campus is open and you should still come to class.' Maybe they'll believe it if you say it over the cellphone."


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