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Campus security issues: Consider your safety while advising
Authored by: Steven Stolar
Who provides leadership for campus safety and security at our colleges and universities? Can advisors identify these individuals by name? Do we know these individuals by sight? Do we know the staff affiliated with these offices by name, telephone extension, and location? Do we, as advisors, feel we can rely on these individuals or the services provided on our campuses to ensure our safety in the workplace?
Where do we report an incident? Do the chains of command at our institutions require us to bring complaints to our immediate supervisors? Or do we have the liberty to contact the campus security office when necessary? How responsive are our campus security teams? What level of confidence do we have in these services? When was the last time advisors on our campuses attended a training session on what to do in the event of a threatening danger observed in the work environment?
Evolving practices in campus safety
A generation ago, when I grew up, we knew that schools could provide parents with a great deal of assurance about their child's safety. In just a few decades this perception has radically changed. Recent campus violence has been nothing less than horrific and has terrified parents across the country. Our positions as academic advisors in colleges and universities, both residential and commuter, require that we constantly engage the public by inviting them into our offices. We are open environments. Now, more than ever, we must take the time to examine our institutional policies, procedures, and safety precautions; we must make sure that resources and budgets are available to assure the safety of ourselves and our students.
Campus safety is a relatively new arena where little has been written regarding academic and student services. Traditionally, issues such as this have fallen within the area of law enforcement. Academic advisors have thought little about maintaining safety and security within the workplace. Advisors have been trained in student development and human potential, not in lockdowns, campus safety, and self defense. We often rely on the campus police force or campus security personnel to protect us while at work.
My intention here is not to conduct an extensive literature review and put forth what academics, scholars, and authors have discovered in their research on campus security. Rather, this piece is meant to be a common sense reference from an individual with 28 years of student services work who is a licensed counselor and a graduate of Virginia Tech.
Discrete weapons and self-defense
Advisors must ask: What would I do if a student reached over my desk and grabbed me by the shirt? What would I do if a student sat down in my office and revealed a weapon in a knapsack or briefcase? What would I do if a student made a verbal threat? In a worse case scenario, what would I do if I was attacked in a restroom, in a hallway, stairwell, or on the way to a parking lot?
These are not easy questions to ask but they really must be considered. Advisors who have never attended a class on self-defense should consider doing so. Additionally, we should look at our desks. What items can be used for self-protection? A pen, a letter opener, paperweight, or stapler can be useful. Perhaps a can of mace in the top drawer should be standard equipment in all offices.
Advisors must examine their office layouts and consider how to exit the office without crossing the path of a threatening individual. Is it feasible to exit the office through the door? Is the desk a barricade separating the advisor from the door? Do advisors keep their office doors closed when advising students to respect their privacy? These considerations are important to both men and women and are very important to individuals not physically capable of defending themselves in a physical altercation.
At the community college where I work we have instituted a series of reactive and proactive policies and procedures to best assure our safety. A laundry list of items needed to be addressed including: emergency telephone extensions, electronic campus safety notifications, emergency code words, construction issues, emergency exits, scheduling, awareness, weapons, lockdowns versus evacuations, institutional policy and expectations of student behavior, cameras, metal detectors, crisis intervention training, and finally, forming a Student Intervention Team known as the SIT committee.
Student Intervention Team (SIT)
The most recent initiative, the SIT committee, was established to address unacceptable student behavior on campus. Examples of this are verbal outbursts, classroom behavior that is perceived to be dangerous or unreasonable, outbursts of aggression in and out of class, aggression against other students or property, and, of course, more obvious examples such as threats and overt expressions of violence. Referral forms are available throughout campus which individuals can complete and forward to the SIT committee members. Over a four month period approximately two dozen SIT referrals have been reviewed. Among these referrals have been several examples of students who need counseling, psychological assessment, or intervention with referral to crisis management in either college or off campus counseling centers.
We have been very fortunate that our campus has traditionally been a very safe environment and we have not been subject to any extreme cases of violence. We have been able to intervene and provide students with services they desperately needed. In future years we expect our SIT committee to be more proactive and anticipate how they will address unwarranted student behaviors as they promote campus wellness.
There are 22 specific student conduct infractions identified in our Student Handbook. These include “common sense” infractions such as harassment, causing physical or psychological harm to another person, making racist or discriminatory comments, using inappropriate language, misusing or damaging fire safety equipment, falsifying student records, gambling, excessive parking violations, and other items familiar to most campus conduct codes. The college also distributes, via the student handbook, the procedures used by the Student Judiciary Committee if these policies are violated. It is important that these documents are kept current, reviewed annually, printed regularly, and distributed to all students. It is perhaps even more important that these publications do not go unattended by students. Students must be aware of the college’s expectations of their behavior. AtCumberlandthis is done in our freshman seminar, the first-year experience course required of all new students. It is one thing to have a document in existence, but it is a very different one to make sure its contents are known to the student body.
Emergency notification system
Another recent initiative undertaken by our institution has been the establishment of an emergency notification system for all employees and students in the event of an emergency be it campus violence or a weather emergency school closing. We use a system from the Blackboard Corporation called BlackboardConnect ® www.blackboardconnect.com. This is a very user-friendly system in which students may interact through their campus-based Web page, add cell and text message numbers and various e-mail accounts where they would like to be notified in the event of an emergency.
At this point most colleges have an emergency notification system and those that do not are very strongly encouraged to establish one immediately.
Several years ago our campus adopted the use of a designated codeword in the event of a perceived emergency. We use a medically related word. If, for example, someone in our office felt threatened, that person could pick up the phone and say the codeword to the individual on the other end; that campus individual would then contact the campus security force. A parallel to our safety word notification is the emergency code number. The number “777” is a direct line to our campus security who use the caller ID system to pinpoint the telephone. As is the case with the designated code word, someone from our campus security office would arrive at that designated office in a very short period of time.
Scheduling and Training
When developing work schedules attention should be paid to office coverage with at least two people in the office at all times. This is particularly important at small colleges or in departments where staffing is minimal. Supervisors in buildings or offices on the perimeter of the campus and those with little traffic should pay close attention to scheduling issues. In the evenings and on weekends staff members may be in jeopardy when left to work alone. Supervisors should be sensitive to this issue and pay close attention to the staffing practices for the offices they oversee.
Student workers should also be considered in this regard as they may lack the level of emergency training of full-time employees and may not know what to do in the event of an emergency situation. All employees, e.g., student, part-time, or full-time, should be provided regular training for on campus emergencies.
Lockdowns versus evacuations
We, like many other institutions, instituted an evacuation procedure for our campus. However, after the Virginia Tech incident, it occurred to us that an evacuation procedure would not work in all situations. Of course, in the event of a fire or a bomb threat, evacuation procedures are essential. However, in the event of an outside threat, lockdown procedures are necessary.
In the event of a lockdown our campus bell tower chimes continuously. This giant bell can be heard throughout campus and all employees know that when they hear the bell tower chime on a continuous basis they are to turn off the lights, lock the doors from the inside, and stay away from the windows until notified.
Some of the above issues are construction issues that require budgetary consideration. Many older buildings have doors that do not lock from the inside while newer buildings were often fitted with doors which lock from the inside in case of a lockdown emergency. As older buildings are updated doors should be fitted with hardware that enables people to lock doors from the inside.
Other infrastructure issues that must be addressed include campus lighting, particularly near parking lots, and the placement of dumpsters, shrubs, or any visual obstacles that might create a place for someone to “hide.” Emergency telephones or alarm centers should be placed throughout campus in locations that are easily accessible and highly visible.
It would make sense that everyone knows how to enter and exit their building. Still, facilities personnel should mark all exits in the event of emergency. In emergency situations people can panic and well-placed, easily understood signs are a must.
Advancements in technology have made the use of video cameras common place in areas like entrances, toll booths, and traffic intersections. How amazing! Government, businesses, nonprofit agencies, and high schools increasingly rely on technology to monitor the public and employees. Colleges and universities will be no exception. Surveillance/security technology should be budgeted annually and maintenance upgrades need to be regular and thorough. Advisors in office areas not equipped with these or other security devises should request them, in writing to their immediate supervisors. If the request goes ignored or the response is that “there is no money for this” – ask again, and copy the next individual up the organizational ladder. Managers who prepare budgets should look outside their immediate job responsibilities and consider the costs of protecting their staff with currently available technology.
Found at prisons, airports and in other high security locations, metal detectors represent the ultimate in currently available security and strong iconic imagery. Their presence alone is a visual deterrent to violence and crime. In locales where violence is prevalent, high schools have installed these devices. Campus administrators must examine if such extreme measures are necessary on their campuses. Perhaps they may be appropriate for special events, particular locations, or at specific times during the academic calendar.
Crisis intervention training
Many college staff members have participated in crisis management training. Those with counseling backgrounds are particularly skilled at managing or assisting individuals in crisis. However, this cannot be confused with a crisis of violence that requires more than talking. An individual or group might have a false sense of security knowing that certain individuals in the office are “trained in crisis management.” While these skills are important, they will not be sufficient if someone enters a campus armed and with a plan to cause physical harm to others. Always err of the side of caution.
One of the most valuable tools an organization or individual has at their disposal in a time of crisis is a sense of awareness. In a broad sense, if something does not look or sound right, then it probably is wrong. There are some things that cannot be taught and perhaps this is one of those. Some of us are externally oblivious to our environments. As we concentrate on our work we often do not notice individuals coming in and out of our offices and classrooms. We may not notice what they may becarrying or how they are behaving; we may miss warning signs.
As educators, we are not trained to be suspicious, but trusting. This is particularly true for counselors, advisors, and student personnel workers. We have been trained to help and tend to look for the good in people. This may leave us vulnerable.
If perpetrators want to victimize an individual or organization, their planning will permit them to gain entry. Recent events have shown this. We must have emergency plans in place and be more cautious and less trusting.
Authored by: Steven Stolar
Director of Advisement, Transfer and Career Services
Cumberland County College, Vineland , NJ
Cite this resource using APA style as:
Stolar, S. (2009).Campus security issues: Consider your safety while advising. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site: