Many people say that college can be the best four years of your life and it’s not difficult to see why. For a lot of young students, it’s the first time they get a chance to live on their own. Suddenly, they have the freedom to shape their schedules around classes and activities that they’re passionate about. And for some, the promise of a party scene is a major plus. At the same time, this newfound freedom comes with the daunting task of being responsible for one’s personal security.
College campuses aren’t always the safe havens that we would like them to be. In a 2016 report on Campus Safety and Security, the U.S Department of Education cited that 37,389 criminal acts were reported across 6,506 institutions. Earlier research from the 2015 National Crime Victims’ Right Week Resource Guide also shows that about 82% of crimes occur right on campus.
But what sorts of offenses affect college kids today? And how can we help students protect themselves from harm?
Here’s all you need to know about campus security and how you can create the safest college experience possible.
State of the (Student) Union
The idyllic image of the safe college campus has been marred by recent tragedies in the news: large abuse scandals, mass shootings and school-wide cyber attacks, to name a few. Subsequently, campus security has become more and more of a concern among students and their families. A recent survey conducted by Noodle, an educational consulting agency, concluded that parents listed campus safety as their number one factor when choosing a school, while prospective students listed it as their second.
Aside from major tragedies and scandals, there are a few common safety issues that don’t always make great headlines. The good news? Some of them are preventable.
Theft, for example, is a widespread issue among college campuses.
In 2014, the National Center for Victims of Crime reported that burglary, motor vehicle theft, muggings, and robbery accounted for over half of the crimes documented on college campuses.
In the same vein, the latest police employee data by universities and colleges shows that robbery is a pervasive issue at all American colleges, averaging about 120 reported incidences per institution. Computers, smartphones, tablets, bikes, cars, wallets; all are vulnerable if proper precautions aren’t taken.
According to the United States Board of Education’s Campus Safety and Security report mentioned earlier, the number of reported VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) offenses increased by 24% from 2014 to 2016.
- Any form of domestic or dating violence
- Sexual abuse against men and/or women.
Fortunately, more and more schools are becoming increasingly aware of sexual abuse and harassment cases. Administrators are starting to take a hard look at their sex crime policies with the goal of helping students feel comfortable reporting sexual traumas and handling investigation and punishment fairly.
Drugs and Alcohol
We all know that alcohol and drugs are sometimes considered the life and blood of the classic college party. But studies has shown that substance abuse is one of the biggest risks to student safety.
According to a report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, every year:
- roughly 696,000 students ages 18 to 24 are assaulted by a peer who was drinking
- about 97,000 students within the same age group have reported experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
These numbers don’t include the thousands of students who seriously (if not fatally) injure themselves from alcohol-related accidents.
In addition, drugs and alcohol are often involved with hazing rituals, which can be emotionally traumatizing and physically harmful for the students involved.
While college institutions are susceptible to hacking, ransomware and other forms of cyber attacks, college students in particular are some of the most targeted populations when it comes to phishing scams.
For example, hackers will send fake emails to students who are looking for employment in order to take their personal information. Other phishing attempts promise students financial opportunities, which makes sense given the trend towards high student debt.
If a single device connected to a campus network is infected with some sort of virus, the whole IT ecosystem can be affected, according to Alexander Polyakov, CTO and Co-Founder of ERPScan in an article for Forbes. Given the amount of personal information that students share through their smart devices and social media, students need to be very aware of their cybersecurity.
Why Are These Issues Important?
Feeling insecure on campus can have very negative effects on a person’s ability to succeed. In “Too Scared To Learn? The Academic Consequences of Feeling Unsafe at School,” Johanna Lacoe, then a graduates student at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, explains how feeling unsafe can prevent students from getting the most out of their college experience, be it academically, socially, or mentally. Lacoe writes,
“Based on the estimates from this analysis, differential feelings of safety in the classroom may contribute to between a quarter and a third of the gap in test scores between minority and white students. It is clear that ensuring that each student feels safe in the classroom is a critical first step in improving educational achievement and reducing racial and ethnic achievement gaps.”
As black and brown students are more likely to feel unsafe at school, their grades suffer, further widening the gap between them and their white, affluent counterparts. Specifically, those who have been subject to the threat of violence, whether physical or psychological, may find it harder to concentrate in class and perform well in their activities. Some students may fear leaving their dorms and drop out of school altogether, Lacoe writes.
So while it’s vital for school administrators to continue improving campus safety, it’s also important that students and parents equip themselves with the knowledge and tools to feel more confident in their own security.
How to Feel More Secure on Campus
Here’s the good news: there are many things you can do to make yourself safer on a college campus. In this section, I’m giving you actionable tips to avoid danger, both in and out of the classroom.
Feeling Safe on the Go
Anytime you’re traveling around campus, it’s super important that you are aware of your surroundings, the time of day, how you’re traveling and who you are with.
Before you exit your dorm — or whatever building you’re leaving — make sure to ask yourself:
- Am I traveling alone?
- Am I walking through places that are well lit? Well populated?
- Am I carrying any valuables (laptop, wallet, tablet, cell phone)?
The answers to these questions can help you make the best decisions on the go. People who walk alone are much more likely to get mugged than people who travel in groups, particularly in areas that are dark and desolate.
If you are walking by yourself at night and you don’t feel safe, it might be best to call the campus shuttle or the campus police to drive you to where you need to go. That way, you don’t have to worry about what might happen to you on the street.
If you have no choice but to walk, consider carrying some pepper spray or an air horn. There are also a few apps that can help you feel safe while you’re walking alone:
- Circle of 6: One of the most well-known personal safety apps out there, Circle of 6 allows you to pick six friends or family members you can reach to pick you up (or just chat) all at the touch of a button. There’s also a danger button that you can press to reach hotlines that support victims of sexual or domestic abuse.
- Watch Over Me: This app allows you to shake your phone to alert all of your emergency contacts, turn on an alarm have your video camera record any evidence.
- bSafe: With a built-in GPS tracker, this app makes it easy to let loved ones keep tabs on your location.
Getting from place to another doesn’t just involve walking, of course. Depending on what type of campus you live on, there could be a whole host of options to get around your college campus and the surrounding area, each with their own unique security risks. Your transportation options really depend on where your college is located, either in an urban, suburban, or rural area.
For students who attend urban colleges, pickpocketing can be a problem on public transportation. Make sure your cell phone and wallet aren’t easy to reach!
Another method of transportation is cabs or ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft. As these services are relatively new, it’s not surprising that one in five people don’t feel safe using sharing services, according to a study from Jumio .
Here are best practices for using a driving service as a means of transportation:
- Never take a cab alone if you’re drunk. Getting a cab seems like a good idea if you are inebriated, as you won’t have to operate a vehicle. But keep in mind that you don’t know if you can trust the driver, so make sure to have a friend with you at all times.
- Make sure it’s the right car. If you call and Uber and the license plate doesn’t match what’s on your app, report it, ask for a refund, and get another cab. You want to make sure you are riding with drivers that have a responsible track record. If things don’t match up with the information that you have, you have no idea if your driver is safe or if the driver even works for Uber. Always, always, always check the license plate!
- Share your trip info with friends or family. In many ride-sharing apps, you can share your trip status so people are aware of your route and estimate time of arrival. That way, if something goes wrong, you’re totally trackable.
- Try to sit in the backseat. If there’s room in your Lyft, sit in the back to give yourself an easy exit on either side of the car. Plus, it gives your driver some (probably much needed) personal space.
If you ever end up in a shady cab situation, try to call 911 as soon as possible and leave the car. Make sure to get the license plate number to report to the police!
Rural and suburban campuses might seem safer because they tend to be isolated from the outside world. However, students who go to more remote schools are still subject to certain transportation risks. Kids who live in rural and suburban areas tend to drive more, which means they need to be increasingly aware of:
- Drunk driving. If you have been drinking, make sure you have a designated driver to take you home or find some other mode of transportation. Never get behind the wheel with someone who has had alcohol or any other substance.
- Drowsy driving. Between all of the studying and extracurricular activities, many students don’t get enough sleep so they are more likely to get a little drowsy behind the wheel. If you feel like you are not awake enough to drive, don’t. If you find yourself nodding off on the road. Pull over. Maybe grab a coffee. Better yet, take a nap. Never push through drowsiness.
Since burglary is one of the most common crimes on college campuses, its best students learn how to protect their belongings.
Dorm and Library Precautions
Dorm rooms are highly susceptible to theft and break-ins since many students leave their laptops, mobile devices and other valuables out in the open.
If you’re concerned about the safety of your belongings:
- Consider buying a safe. Most dorm rooms often don’t come with lock safes for you to protect important items. But you can buy safes online for as little as $50.
- Lock your room every time you leave. Some students feel so safe among their friends and peers that they feel free enough to leave the doors of their dorm room or suite unlocked. Once in a while, however, robbers will take advantage of that false sense of invulnerability. Make sure you don’t become a statistic!
- Be aware of leaving windows open. This is something to note particularly if you live on the first floor of a building. Burglars will take advantage of open windows to break into your room. If your valuables are highly visible from any windows, that might tempt intruders as well. When you leave your room, try to keep these items stowed away.
It’s common for students to lose things when they study in libraries or cafes, too. It can be tough to watch over all of your belongings when you’ve got your computer, your tablet and all of your books from Organic Chemistry.
If you’re studying outside of your room make sure to:
- Have a trusted buddy watch over your stuff if you have to leave for a bit. Doesn’t matter if it’s a bathroom break or if you have to make a phone call; always ask someone you trust to keep an eye on your things.
- If you don’t have a watch buddy, take your things. This might seem like a pain in the butt, but it’s better to pack up and lose your favorite study spot than to lose your Mac and the term paper you’d been working on for weeks.
Car Theft Prevention
For students who drive, car theft is a big concern on campus. According to a report from the National Center for Education and Statistics, motor vehicle burglaries accounted for 12% of all crimes in 2016.
But there are many things you can do to prepare for this:
- Park in a well-lit area: If your car is parked in a place that is visible to the public eye and campus security, it will be more protected. Plus this is good for your own safety, as you might be walking to your car alone.
- Don’t leave valuables in open sight: If you do, you’re making your car a prime target for burglary.
- Activate you car alarm: This is pretty baseline, but having a car alarm will scare away thieves and notify you (or others) when something’s awry.
- Get a dash cam: If robbers see a camera, they are much less likely to choose your car. Plus, if anyone breaks into your car, at least you’ll have an idea of who the person was and what they stole.
- Consider a GPS or Bluetooth tracker or an immobilizing device: Thieves will not only steal your stuff— they might take your car, too. I recommend putting a location-tracking device in your car, ideally somewhere hidden. Or you can go super low-tech and install extra door locks, wheel clamps, or a steering wheel lock.
To get more information, read our list of car theft precautions.
Avoiding the Dangers of Substance Abuse
There’s no question about it: substance abuse is very common on college campuses, be it through alcohol or drugs. If you choose to join in, here are some tips to safely enjoy the party scene:
- Remember that if you are drinking under the age of 21, you are subject to state law: Yes, everyone might be doing it and your advisors might be turning a blind eye, but remember that underage drinkers who get caught by authorities might receive a fine or get arrested. The people who served the alcohol may also receive punishment.
- Go out with friends you trust: It’s important to know that the people you surround yourself with have your best interests in mind. When things go wrong it’s awesome to have people to back you up.
- Don’t get behind the wheel with someone who is inebriated: Again, pick your designated driver before you go out or find some other (safe) way to get home.
- Never leave your drink unattended or accept drugs from strangers: Unfortunately, many students have been roofied by date drugs at parties. If you leave your drink, don’t come back to. Toss it out and get a new one.
- Drink responsibly: This goes without saying. Binge drinking has severe effects on one’s rational behavior and overall health.
If you find you or someone you know is dangerously intoxicated:
- Call for medical help immediately. It doesn’t matter if you or your friend is underage. It’s best to get treatment ASAP.
- Try to recover in a safe space. While waiting for medical help, move to a place away from any commotion. Try to sit up (or prop your buddy up) to make sure they don’t choke if vomit is a concern.
How to Prevent Hazing
Despite being illegal in 44 states, according to an article from the Stop Hazing organization, hazing is popular on college campuses, especially among Greek organizations, sports teams, and clubs. It often goes hand-in-hand with binge drinking, but can be emotionally and physically traumatic with or without alcohol. So how can you avoid and help end the harmful effects of hazing?
- Recognize you don’t have to sacrifice yourself or your values to be part of an organization: If leaders in a club are asking you to harm yourself or others in order to join, then it’s just not worth it. Showing your dissent might encourage others within the group to question their actions as well.
- Speak up: If you witness hazing, don’t be afraid to tell campus authorities or call the police, even if it isn’t the most popular thing to do. You might be able to save another person from suffering.
- If you’re a leader, give space for members to voice their concerns: Many times hazing occurs when there is too much of a power gap between the leaders of the organization and the members. People need to have the opportunity to express themselves without punishment for things to change.
- Be okay with letting go of certain traditions: Many hazing rituals continue just for the mere fact that the organization has done them for years. If you’re a part of the organization, suggest that other, safer traditions can be created to create a new legacy.
Protecting Yourself and Others from Sexual Assault
It doesn’t matter if you are a woman or a man: Sexual abuse and rape affect all genders across the country. However, women are four times more likely than men to be sexually assaulted before they graduate, according to a study from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
Fortunately, there are many ways students can protect themselves from the risk of sexual assault:
- Go out with friends who have your back: Again, if you’re going to hit the party scene, look out for each other. Watch each other’s drinks and protect one another from predators.
- Try to avoid sexual encounters while really intoxicated: Sometimes it’s difficult to give and recognize consent when you are drunk or high. This can lead to all sorts of confusion, frustration and sometimes violence between you and your partner. Alcohol and drugs can even make you more susceptible to sexual predators.
- Try not to walk through desolate areas alone: You could be in the middle of a city or an empty running trail— either way, you’re at a higher risk for assault. Try to travel in numbers.
- Take a self-defense course: So not all of us can go all Kill Bill on our perpetrators, but at least we can learn some techniques to wriggle out of sticky situations. Learning the right martial arts techniques can save your life.
- Recognize early signs of abuse and inappropriate sexual advances: Coaches, professors, medical professionals and other authorities can use their influence to take advantage of students. Trust your instincts. If you believe someone is pushing your boundaries or is touching you inappropriately, do your best to leave the situation and report it ASAP.
If you or someone you know has been raped or assaulted:
- Don’t blame yourself or the victim. We’ve mentioned many prevention steps in this article. But if you’ve been attacked, the first step is to realize it is not your fault. Rape culture on and off college campuses is a large issue that needs to be addressed.
- Go seek medical help. Get treatments for any injuries and/or ask for sexual assault forensic exam to collect any evidence.
- Contact authorities as soon as you can. If you want to report a crime, there is a time limit. This is called a statute of limitations and it varies state per state.
- Call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline. Dial 800-656-HOPE (4673) and you’ll be be connected immediately to a trained professional who can provide you with confidential services and support.
Additional resources for sexual assault survivors and advocates
Remember: If you have experienced sexual assault or know someone who has, you are not alone and there are tons of resources out there.
The Rape, Abuse & National Network is a great place to start. They have even more tips for safety and prevention, a hotline, plus guides and resources to help people move through trauma.
The Me Too Movement, founded by Tarana Burke, is another great resource which provides a database of local and national organizations that provide support and safe spaces for survivors and advocates. Their mission is to help people heal through community and education.
Protecting Yourself Against Cyber Attacks
Of all of the issues we’ve already addressed, cyber attacks might seem like the least of your worries. But cyber security is a serious matter, particularly when it comes to protecting your personal information.
Here are the best tips to keeping your computer and mobile devices secure:
- Stow away your laptop: Yes, this is important to prevent theft and to keep our valuables secure. But people often forget the dangers of having your laptop (or other mobile device stolen): people can hack into your computer and steal data that’s not protected. The first step to prevent this from happening is to put away your laptop when you’re not using it or lock it to your desk using a cable lock.
- Buy anti-theft software: If your laptop does get stolen, you can download an apps like LoJack and Get it Back which would allow you to track your device or erase important information before anyone gets to it.
- Create strong passwords and change them as often as possible: This can might seem annoying because of the amount of apps and websites that require a login. It can be easy to just create the same, easy-to-remember login combo. Don’t do that. If you have a hard time remembering your passwords, there are great password managers out there, so make sure to check out the best password managers of 2019.
- Learn how to recognize scams: Reputable companies and brands will never ask for your personal contact information, address or bank account information via email or other insecure methods. Make sure you research businesses or individuals who are trying to contact you before you exchange any information.
- Buy anti-virus software: This is one of the best investments you can make when it comes to protecting your laptop from infection.
Related: The Best VPNs of 2019
Being Safe on Campus is Possible
As you have probably figured out by now, there’s so much information and tools out there to help you or your loved ones feel more secure on campus.
If you take anything away from this article remember these key tips:
- Be aware of your surroundings: Get familiar with your campus and understand where and when it’s safe to walk.
- Know who to contact when you’re in trouble: Campus security. Police. Medical aid. Trusted friends and family.
- Surround yourself with people who will look out for you: It always helps to have friends that have your well-being in mind.
- Protect your belongings: Lock ‘em up. Keep ‘em close. Watch over them.
- Speak up: If you see any behavior that might harm you or someone else, call it out — when appropriate, report it.
- Drink responsibly: Know your limits and never operate a vehicle while under the influence of any substance.
Finally, when you can: Remember to have fun. College might seem daunting at times with all its stressors, but what’s the point of it all if you aren’t enjoying the process?
The first step to joy is feeling secure, and now you know how to equip yourself.