To Be or Not to Be: Safety on College Campuses

Students sitting around an academic building on a college campusImagine a utopia, a haven without parents, where you are a student with the world at your feet, every resource in hand, and only your dreams to set your standards. College campuses provide an ideal incubator for the students and ideas that will one day shape our future. However, this picture-perfect vision of college is not without its pitfalls. The fact that a large number of students—many of whom are underage, on their own for the first time, suffering from an invincibility complex—are all together in a relatively public area that can be accessed by anyone, is a huge safety concern. A study done by the Office of Post Secondary Education on a number of college campuses across the nation indicated burglary to be the leading crime on college campuses, with forcible sexual assault falling in second place. With student enrollment in higher education soaring, the issue of campus safety has been on the rise as well. It is interesting to note however, that it is not an issue that people pay much attention to unless a catastrophe happens, such as the tragic Virginia Tech shootings. This is because on a day-to-day basis, the campuses are generally kept safe by the university police department.

The George Washington University is an interesting school to look at for purposes of this article. Aside from being the school I attend, their system of campus security intrigued me. GW is located in Northwest D.C., differentiating itself from most schools by not only being a school in the city, but a school with no defined borders. This poses quite a challenge for the GWPD. Not only do they have to deal with the normal threats posed on a university campus, but they have to be prepared for threats that are common to a city, as well as national security threats due to their prime location next to the White House. Even though we had a few threats from potential gunmen on campus this year, and even though semi-daily we face the threat of the world in general, I was still able to walk home at night and feel safe by myself. How was this safe haven created? I had the privilege to interview GWPD Chief of Police Kevin Hay to find out how GWPD keeps the campus safe.

Chief Hay started out by acknowledging that GW does face a lot of non-student traffic on campus that law enforcement must monitor. He said, “We have several bus stops and a Metro subway station that bring thousands to our Foggy Bottom campus each day. This level of access increases the opportunities for petty criminals to try and gain access to our facilities. Property crime remains a concern. Luckily, violent crime is not high. We are also a few blocks from the White House, and that can offer a different set of challenges. But it also means there is a lot of law enforcement in this area, including the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division, the U.S. Park Police, the Metropolitan Police Dept. (MPD), and the other nearby agencies protecting the State Department, the Federal Reserve, and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).”

GWPD takes several preventative measures to make sure they can be ready for any threat. Chief Hay went into detail: “We use high visibility patrols to encourage those who might break the law to go somewhere else. We also study crime trends, and when a pattern emerges we set up plain-clothes operations to catch suspects. Typically these involve theft from auto, bike theft, or theft of electronics. We have had good success using both techniques. We share information on criminal activity with MPD and we collaborate when necessary, utilizing personnel from both agencies. Lastly, we maintain an extensive physical security operation that includes a network of CCTV cameras, alarms, blue lights, and access monitors who guard the front doors of our largest residence halls at night.” These are actions that all law enforcement agencies on campuses are strongly encouraged to utilize as well, if they are not already doing so, to maximize the safety of their students.

To keep up with the times, GW has obtained a new tool known as Cooper Roam Secure Alert Network, which allows GWPD to send texts up to 115 characters long when a crime has occurred, while reaching over 30,000 cell phones within minutes. Chief Hay made an excellent observation when he said, “Today’s students are much more likely to open and read a text, rather than an e-mail, so it might seem like there were more alerts, but in truth, we were just reaching more people in a more rapid manner.”

The 21st century has presented an exciting time, as college student enrollment skyrockets. With this, however, new threats are faced. Chief Hay stated, “Our goal is to keep our campus safe with proactive patrols, but also with help from the community. We want all of our students to become 'street-wise' meaning they develop a sense of situational awareness. They don’t leave valuables unattended, they lock their dorm rooms, they use mass transit, 4-Ride (GW’s free night time shuttle service), the Metro, and taxis when appropriate. They walk in groups if out late at night, and they never leave a member of their group to fend for themselves off campus. But it also means being the eyes and ears of law enforcement, by picking up the phone and contacting GWPD or MPD when they see something suspicious. MPD has 3,800 police officers in the District of Columbia and their support of our operation has been great. This year we presented a plaque to the men and women of MPD’s 2nd District Station for all of their leadership and assistance in keeping GW safe.”

A big factor that all college campuses should focus on is educating their students on safety. After polling 30 GW students about their view of Campus Safety, an overwhelming majority said they felt safe enough to walk home alone at night, but that they would remain alert. Chief Hay noted, “Many students come to GW and are street-wise already, [but] some need to learn these skills. Some are so polite that they hold an electronic access door open for strangers, who may have no business in the building. So we work hard on education, we reach out to the community in a variety of ways, including the student newspaper, social media, and press releases. We offer a variety of programs throughout the year including free self-defense classes. We try and educate everyone at GW that crime is not a police problem, it’s a community problem and with everyone’s help we are much more effective at achieving public safety.”

Anum Malik
Special Contributor
The COPS Office

For more information on campus safety, please refer to:
Margolis Healy & Associates Campus Threat Assessment Training
This training program, developed by noted campus safety and threat assessment experts, is the first ever “national curriculum” that focuses on a multidisciplinary approach to threat assessment. It has been specifically designed for higher education administrators involved in threat assessment on their campuses, including campus public safety and local law enforcement; faculty; staff; student affairs professionals; counseling center staff; campus judicial officers; campus risk management professionals; and higher education attorneys. This program not only fills the void for a campus-oriented training program, but it also models the ideals of community oriented policing, as it recommends bringing together various constituent groups to act in a proactive manner to prevent potential violence on campuses and provides assistance to campus community members who may be in need of assistance.



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