How Safe Is Your Child’s College Campus?
A little homework can reveal surprising answers
For many parents, having a child settled into a university is a source of deep pride. It can also be nervous-making, given the prevalence of news headlines about campus assaults, shootings and other crimes.
Want a better sense of how safe your child is at his or her school? Do a little homework.
For starters, the statistics on campus crime and dorm fires in many colleges is easily accessible. The Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990 requires colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to report campus crime statistics and security information. That data is available on the Department of Education’s website in the form of a searchable database.
Related: Having the College Safety Talk
Data is also available on The Princeton Review, a test preparation and college admissions services company, which publishes fire safety ratings as part of its ranking of individual colleges. It also includes links to each school’s annual crime reports on the “Campus Safety” tab on school profile pages. It offers tips on researching campus safety in its campus safety section for students and parents.
But while crime and safety data are available, they may offer an incomplete, and even deceptive, view of how safe a campus may be.
“This is the weird paradox: Sometimes when colleges report more crime it is because they are dedicated to more transparency and they are actually safer,” Robin Hattersley Gray, executive editor of the trade publication Campus Safety Magazine. “The fact that a campus has higher crime stats is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, they might just be more open and dedicated to telling the truth.”
Gray’s advice: Look at the reported statistics and ask whether the numbers make sense relative to the location and student population size.
A college safety checklist
Gray offers a list of 20 questions parents should ask in evaluating how safe a campus is. (Even if your child is already at school, it’s worth reviewing the college’s safety policies and following up with a call to campus administrators to ask questions.). The list includes:
- Does the college or university have appropriate sexual violence prevention programs?
- Does the college have an on-campus counseling center that is fully staffed and well-funded?
- Does the campus conduct background checks on all employees?
- Does the campus have a threat assessment team to intervene when people demonstrate threatening behavior?
- Does the campus police or security have adequate staffing, funding and training?
- Does the college’s police chief or top security executive report to a top level administrator?
- Has the institution conducted a threat and vulnerability assessment of the campus to determine what risks are present?
- Does the university have an emergency plan and a comprehensive emergency management program that is all-hazards based?
- Does the university incorporate security and safety into building design and landscaping?
- Does the university allow anonymous reporting by campus public safety officers, staff and faculty, or provide some other way to protect whistleblowers from retaliation?
The Princeton Review encourages parents to ask all the questions they want.
“When it comes to safety, the most important thing students and families can do is educate themselves about the resources and programs available on each college campus,” Rob Franek, senior vice president and publisher of The Princeton Review, told SafeBee. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and do your own research, too.”
Invite yourself over
Because statistics don’t tell the whole story, it pays to visit the campus and take a look for yourself. Check out your child’s dorm with an eye toward fire safety. (Fire departments responded to nearly 4,000 fires in dormitories, fraternities, sororities and barracks between 2009 and 2013, according to the National Fire Protection Association.) Does it have sprinklers, smoke alarms and CO detectors?
“The dorm should have an alarm system, but some of the older ones don’t,” says John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for UL. His advice: “You spend thousands and thousands of dollars on tuition and books and housing, but you should also think about spending $15 or so for the student's own smoke alarm." And make sure it has fresh batteries.
Ask the resident advisor if he or she is trained in fire safety, suggests Drengenberg. Also, look to see if there’s a fire extinguisher in the hall and exits marked “fire exit.” “There are a good indication that staff is thinking about fire safety."