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A Sense of Security

Health, Safety, and Well-being Campus Safety and Violence Prevention VP for Student Affairs
May 11, 2023 Alan Acosta University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 2, May 2023

Fostering Moral Development: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

One question I have been grappling with lately is can higher education institutions guarantee students' safety? And to think take that one step further, should that even be a guarantee higher education institutions make?

Grappling With Acts of Violence

My initial thinking on this question started with the mass shooting at Michigan State University (MSU) in February 2023. The incident was a reminder of my own experience dealing with a campus shooting in November 2014 at Florida State University (FSU). The FSU shooting resulted in a loss of life of the shooter, but MSU’s incident had far more dire and wide-reaching consequences. MSU's and FSU’s campus shootings are unfortunately just two of far-too-many campus shootings over the last 20 years, particularly following the infamous shooting at Virgina Tech in 2007.

Beyond mass shootings, many campuses grapple with other acts of violence or unlawful behavior. While these incidents may not result in a loss of life, they still can shake the fundamental sense of safety and stability students have had while attending a college campus. My own anecdotal observation over the years of my career is that currently, incoming students and families give a lot more attention to how safe a particular campus is or seems to be than when I began my professional journey in 2006. With the seeming rise in all kinds of violence and unruly behavior, this focus by families and students is not surprising.

Some Suggestions for Campus Safety

With those factors in mind, I revisit the question at the beginning of this post: To what extent do institutions need or should guarantee safety? Can institutions do so? I think this question is more complex than on the surface. I think both institutions, families, and students have a joint obligation to work together to make students, faculty, and staff as safe as possible while on the campus.

For institutions, I think they have several aspects to their safety responsibility. While many campuses are considered “open,” meaning there are multiple unchecked points of entry, any opportunities a campus can take to put in security checkpoints can be useful; checkpoints can be a visual signal to all that the campus takes security seriously. Campuses should ensure as many buildings as reasonably possible have some form of accessibility mechanism, which can be badge or ID access restrictions or some other security measure (i.e., a front desk staffed by the university). Institutions should have clear messaging on the various systems in place that promote or address safety, and this messaging should be widely disseminated in multiple ways and across multiple platforms on a consistent basis. Campus staff should also emphasize the importance of campus safety along with the ways students, faculty, and staff can play a role in campus safety. Opportunities for these conversations include a statement on course syllabi which are discussed by faculty in class, new student orientation, residence hall floor meetings, and during sporting events.

Security Personnel

Another safety measure for campuses to consider, which has become more controversial in recent years, is the presence and role of security personnel and law enforcement. I recognize the very presence of campus security and law enforcement has faced appropriately intense scrutiny and been the subject of reasonable dialogue, particularly in the wake of numerous killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. I personally believe there is a role for security personnel and law enforcement on a college campus. My own perspective has been shaped by the overwhelmingly positive relationships I have had with campus law enforcement officers throughout my career; FSU’s police department responded almost instantaneously and stopped the shooter before he could take any lives – they made the difference that day. I also recognize my experience with campus law enforcement is not reflective of everyone’s, particularly students/faculty/staff of color.

I think the best way to build a culture of trust and by extension create a safer campus is for security personnel and law enforcement to build strong relationships with the other members of the campus community. In practice, this means security personnel and law enforcement have the best training possible to respond to numerous potential security threats on campus; training should also include focusing on cultural awareness, sensitivity, and humility. Security personnel and law enforcement should also get out on campus and be present even if no security threat or concern is present. Doing so may help others’ perceptions about security personnel and law enforcement’s presence and better integrate them into the campus community.

Students' Safety Measures

I think there are several things families and students can do to contribute to a safe campus environment. First, families and students should not take the position that safety is solely the responsibility of the institution—each individual has a personal investment and role in campus safety. Families and students should embrace having conversations about ways students can be safe on campus, including not walking alone at night; texting or calling a loved one or friend when walking to or from points on campus; or doing a quick text check-in when leaving from and returning to campus from an off-campus location. Families should feel secure knowing they have helped their student identify small but easy safety measures. While on campus, if students see something or someone that seems odd, off-base, or out-of-place, they should feel empowered to let a university staff member know so the issue can be further investigated.

Families, Students, and the Institution

Let me be clear: even if an institution takes all of these steps and families and parents do their part, I do not believe there is any way an institution can absolutely guarantee students will be safe. As someone who has managed the aftermath of a campus shooting, I know there is just no way to account for and prevent the unexpected. What I believe can be done is institutions can guarantee they will do everything in their power, including implementing some of the above suggestions, to keep up their end of the campus safety bargain. If families and students also do their part, then institutions can maximize the safety of a campus.