How to Tell if a College Campus is Safe
Years before I started EducatedQuest I was an urban economic development professional in Newark, New Jersey working for a business-funded non-profit organization. I became, by chance, actively involved in college campus development issues (Newark has three colleges as well as a medical school and two law schools) and downtown security. I served as staff to a task force of police, private security professionals and property managers. One of our tasks was to walk the downtown and do a security audit. We did not look at personnel issues. We considered how the appearance of the downtown affected peoples perceptions of safety. Since then I have become more curious about the college campus setting and how it helps make students, employees and visitors feel safe. I am also the author of a novel, Defending College Heights, about a murder that resulted from the failure of security on a college campus.
The college campus is different from school to school. A school in a large city, for instance, will have security on the first floor of pretty much every building. Those officers will ask everyone for IDs asks visitors to wait until their host says that s/he can see them. People might feel safe knowing that an officer is on the first floor. But not all security professionals who work in college campus buildings are trained the same, or have the same responsibilities to grant or deny access. Personally, I am more concerned by a police presence in a trafficked lobby or a main campus street than relieved. It tells me that things “happen here” that require the college campus police or the local police to be diligent.
I have rarely seen a college campus setting, meaning grounds and buildings, that was a fortress where you needed to check in at a gate before entering. A college campus is more likely to be open and welcoming. It’s not unusual, for instance, to see local residents taking walks, even walking their dogs on campus groups. Once, on a personal tour of UC-Berkeley, I saw a dog rescue group training golden retrievers and meditation circle open to passersby. NYU’s “main campus” surrounds Washington Square Park, one of the most dynamic public spaces in the world. Arts, entertainments and sports facilities are open to the community as well as the students and employees. If you want to operate a successful venue, you need to do a good job maintaining public parking and public pathways.
When you take college campus tours you will often see your guide point out “blue-lights” which have higher intensity lighting and call boxes scattered about. You might head about how bright lights are and/or how careful you must be if you go out very late at night. I would like to give you some more information to help you on your tours.
- Public Spaces. Many schools have popular indoor and outdoor spaces where students get together, sometimes stopping at tables set up by students, sometimes to listen to music when the weather is nice. For example, “The Pit,” a simply designed outdoor sunken concrete plaza, is the place where you will see the most students during lunch time when the weather is nice. I like such spaces because they bustle with activity. Barren campuses, especially those in cities, tend to feel less safe because people are not outside. Other schools like the University of Delaware have expansive lawns and greens.
- New Construction. Virtually every school that I have visited has one or more buildings under construction or renovation. The schools that are the most serious about opening a new building do the best at masking off a construction site. Rutgers-New Brunswick and The College of New Jersey, both near home, fence off their sites and use the fences to post ads that create excitement about the project. They also make the site more attractive and less likely to be “visited” while construction crews are working. The ways that a school protects construction crews and visitors shows a lot about the safety of a school. It shows that the administration cares about it.
- Signage. The safe college campus is one that is easy to get around. You’re more likely to feel safe if you can quickly get directions (without having to stop anyone) to exactly where you need to go.
- Building and Grounds Maintenance. I am not a fan of schools that allow buildings or spaces within buildings to become run down. I understand that budgets are strained but people walk about a college campus day and night. In addition, it is embarrassing for a college or university to have buildings that are not up to modern building codes. Most schools who have such buildings take step to either demolish them or renovate them as quickly as they can. In between they do not want people to live or work in them.
- Where Can You Go From Campus? Some schools open into a downtown, others onto a highway, still others onto nothing of interest to a college student. If the school opens into a downtown people will usually come and go freely. Of course some neighborhoods, retail and residential, will feel safer than others. Some will feel safer because you’ll see students coming and going. I get concerned when students avoid their surrounding neighborhood, unless there is absolutely nothing to do. The activity around a college campus has as much to do with feeling safe as the activity on it.
Colleges are required to publish an annual Public Safety Report each year, also known as a Clery Report. If you are concerned about crime around a particular college campus, you can get a copy of their Clery Report on the Public Safety Web page for the school. I’ve found the most commonly reported incidents of crime on college campuses were alcohol and drug-related. The report divides these incidents into those were an arrest occurred as well as those where the school took disciplinary action.
You like to see a downward trend in crimes where the school has more control including burglary, vandalism and larceny/theft as well as drug and alcohol related issues. If the statistics show upward trends, ask why. Was law enforcement more aggressive? Was there a single location that was broken in more than others? Are there locations, especially near heavily trafficked buildings such as student centers, libraries and residence halls, that the school is taking measures to secure? And, of course, there have been reported stories about sexual assault.
If you’re a family with a choice of schools you want to feel good about your decision on the right one. The safety, perceived and real, of a college campus is a “feel-good” consideration.