In the wake of mass shootings, natural disasters and other incidents on college grounds and elsewhere; one group has taken action to improve national campus safety.
A conference Saturday in Orlando, Fla., of campus security experts aimed to begin work on the 32 National Campus Safety Index, a new tool that would measure safety on the nation’s college campuses. One of the conference’s goals was to improve the existing campus safety reporting system, according to an article published by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Todd Sigler, director of the university’s department of public safety, said the Clery Act is a useful start to discussions about campus safety, but understanding the information could be improved by communicating the circumstances that contribute to the numbers.
The Clery Act was created after the rape and murder of a Lehigh student in 1990, after a public outcry over large numbers of unreported campus crimes. The federal law requires any university receiving federal funding to release an annual report of campus safety statistics.
“Where the Clery Act fails is addressing an individual’s personal responsibility for their own safety,” Sigler said.
Other university safety administators share Sigler’s view.
“It’s important for people to become engaged with the numbers,” said John Allen, administrative lieutenant at the university’s department of public safety. “I give new-student orientations based around our reports, because people need to know what they’re looking at.”
The annual safety report includes data about violent crimes, arrests, fires, sexual assault prevention programs, environmental safety procedures and ways students can increase personal safety while on campus, Allen said.
“I encourage parents and students both to become familiar with the statistics,” he said. “There’s a ton of information on our website, and it’s important for everyone to have their eyes wide open.”
The data can be misleading, though, Allen said.
“You can’t just look at the numbers. You have to learn how to read them,” he said. “Trying to compare numbers from different universities is like comparing limes to lemons, they’re similar but you have to have knowledge of the actual incidents.”
For example, Allen said a university who reports a large number of incidents of underage drinking doesn’t necessarily have an underage drinking problem.
“It may be that the school has a more effective enforcement program,” he said, “It’s hard to say empirically why numbers are high or low, because that is totally subjective.”
Sigler said the numbers themselves do not present a whole accurate picture of a campus’ safety environment, because the surrounding community isn’t taken into account.
“The Clery numbers are better than nothing, but campuses like ours don’t close at six o’clock,” he said. “It’s a fluid environment.”
Allen said the numbers can also be misinterpreted because of the way the Clery Act requires them to be reported.
“We have to list on-campus incidents, and a separate column of on-campus incidents that occurred in residence halls,” he said. “These numbers aren’t added together for the total, and that can confuse parents and prospective students.”
The numbers reported also come from other sources than campus police alone, Allen said.
“We are required to have campus security authorities who are chosen by their positions on campus, not just their job title,” he said. “This can include faculty who serve as mentors or advisors.”
Allen said the university has trained more than 1,000 Campus Security Authorities on campus, and the program exists because some students feel more comfortable reporting crimes or victimizations to sources other than a police officer.
Sigler said the 32 Campus Safety Index proposals may be an improvement in how campus safety information is presented to the public, but with any number system come questions.
“It will be important to know how the index’s rankings, or however they will present information, is well-explained,” he said. “This way people have a better idea what the differences are between them.”
Allen said the university has many other programs students should be aware of that contribute to the campus’ overall safety culture and can affect reported numbers of safety incidents.
“We have the wireless emergency notification system, which reaches more than 10,000 people,” he said. “As well as the Building Emergency Response Teams in every building on campus.”
The BERT is an all-volunteer force trained to assist in coordinating emergency actions and maintaining order, should an event occur.
Sigler said the BERT is required by one of the Clery Act’s provisions calling for a campus threat assessment team.
“We were ahead of the curve in meeting that need,” he said. “But within the Clery Act, any question of safety adequacy, like the appropriate number of emergency call boxes, is largely left up to the institution itself.”
Students across campus are concerned about their safety following reports of crimes on campus as well as the recent shooting sprees across the country.
Kellyn Sirach, a junior from Harrisburg studying elementary education, said she’s too scared to be on campus at night.
“I come from a small town and my parents are huge worriers, so that has made me a little more fearful,” she said. “My parents even bought me a lipstick-sized pepper spray can.”
Sirach, who lives in the Wall and Grand Apartments, said she is cautious even in her apartment because she doesn’t truly know her neighbors.
“I always make sure to lock my door, and I’ve never even met my resident assistant,” she said.
Sirach said she has enrolled in the Wireless Emergency Notification System, but has never received an alert from the system, but she approved of the CSA program.
“If I were assaulted, I would definitely feel more comfortable talking to a mentor or advisor because I’ve never really dealt with the police,” she said.
She also said she has seen vandalised bicycles around campus, but has never personally had a safety issue.
Amanda Nash, a freshman from Champaign studying architecture, had a different opinion on her personal safety.
Nash lives in the Mae Smith residence hall, in a living and learning community made up of architecture and fashion design majors.
“I generally feel safe on campus, and our whole floor is practically family,” she said. “I still keep my door locked, though.”
Nash’s main concern was the university sharing knowledge of its safety programs with students, as she said she had no knowledge of the BERT or the CSA programs.
Allen, though, said any student who feels unsafe for any reason should call their office immediately.
“We can only improve by hearing from the students themselves,” he said.
Ultimately, Sigler and Allen said reducing a campus’ safety environment to numbers on a page is only a first step to discussing it.
“Clery is not the end of the conversation,” Sigler said. “By trying to reduce a complex concept like safety to a simple set of numbers is doing a disservice to parents and students alike.”