As student fears rise, how strong are safety measures your college provides?

Sexual misconduct, hazing and other potential crimes demand proactive messaging and resources on security from institutions.

More than 80% of students who arrived on colleges campuses this fall said they were very concerned about their personal safety, according to a study done by the Clery Center and security firm ADT.

The combination of crimes being committed on campuses—from sexual assaults to burglaries to hazing—along with heightened awareness from reporting on social media and news outlets has stoked fear among students. And it’s not just freshmen arriving for the first time but also those who have been at their institutions for a couple of years. They’re leery of unfamiliar areas, walking home at night, leaving a party by themselves and even talking with strangers, the study notes.

“Concerns about safety did not decrease as students got older,” said Jessica Mertz, Executive Director of the Clery Center. “It stayed pretty consistent, whether they were a freshman or fourth year. That tells us that information you’re giving needs to be consistent in order for them to understand what the risks are and what the resources are.”

College crime statistics from Clery Act reporting over the past decade show some decreases overall, but the prominence of alleged incidents and the protests that have ensued–from Eastern Michigan to Boston University–have sparked worry from those attending and working on campuses.

“If you look at some of the specific categories of crimes–namely hate crimes, sex offenses–you’ll see Clery Act data indicates an increase,” Mertz says. “This could be attributed to better awareness of these issues and institutions doing a better job of establishing a culture of reporting. That’s something that we work with campuses a lot on: how are you encouraging reporting? How are you making sure that the student body knows where to report and feels like they won’t be retaliated against if they make a report.”

In the case of sexual assaults, Mertz said they traditionally have been underreported. But awareness is helping change that.

“This is a student body that has spent the past five years hearing about sexual violence in a way that they probably haven’t heard in previous generations,” Mertz says. “They’re coming to understand what consent means and what their rights are and have been encouraged to speak out and take action. The more that continues, the more that will encourage and motivate institutions to put more time and resources behind some of these prevention efforts “

One positive data point is that 74% of students do trust their institutions. “Building on that trust is going to be key,” she says.

Students are thinking about safety

Because of the Clery Act, colleges and universities that get federal funding are required to report their crime statistics and security measures. Mertz says it is the Act that should show them how to proceed with campus populations to ensure their safety.

“We do think it lays a roadmap for how institutions can prevent and respond to campus crime,” she says. “We always emphasize the importance of getting to know your own community and getting to know your individual students’ concerns, paying attention to the trends of crime statistics on your own campus. There might be some environmental factors that you can address as an institution that are leading to increased fear. Or there might be some areas where you need to invest more in programming that are really specific to your institution. We’ve been encouraging institutions to rely on tried-and-true resources and approaches they’ve taken in the past to do effective prevention programming and to build in awareness programming throughout the year.”

Although only 13% of the students who completed the survey from Clery and ADT said they’ve participated in prevention programming, Mertz says students are interested, as 97% say they are thinking about their safety as they walk around campuses.

“There’s often this assumption that they don’t want to hear it, or that they’re not going to be willing to engage in it. But it is something that they’re thinking about,” Mertz says. “We might have to work harder than ever because we have a student body coming in who really haven’t had that same level of programming [because of the pandemic].”

First-year students are especially important, not just in providing initial resources but carrying through those conversations as they progress through their academic careers. “There’s so much emphasis on presenting information during new student orientation, but they’re often incredibly overwhelmed at that point,” she says.

Other crimes and a tool to help

In addition to sexual assault, other crimes that have become prominent are hazing and hate crimes, 4% of which nationally are occurring on campuses, according to the FBI. Not all states have federal hazing legislation and Mertz says day-to-day occurrences are probably being overlooked.

“We see it get national attention when there’s a tragedy,” she says. “Hazing is one of those areas where we do see a lot of stigma around students being not necessarily turning to campus resources because there’s fear of getting their student organization in trouble or of retaliation. And from talking to campus leaders, they’re rightfully concerned about issues of racial equity.”

Aside from prevention measures, colleges should maintain high levels of safety personnel while heavily promoting available resources to sources. They can also pitch safety products provided online. One of the tools available for free is ADT’s SoSecure personal safety app. The app connects students to monitoring agents instantly in an emergency or when needing reassurance. Students can press a digital button within the app, use discreet chat features via SMS, utilize video streaming or use hands-free voice activation to get help. Users can come up with a keyphrase only they will know that can activate an alert to call security professionals.

“It’s kind of a digital guardian,” says Leah Page, Vice President of Mobile Security at ADT. “55% of the young adults surveyed admitted they hadn’t called friends, even when they felt unsafe, for fear that they would be judged. With the monitoring agent, there is that sense of being anonymous—they’re not going to judge the situation. It’s our mission to just make sure that you feel safe.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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