Skip to content

Campus Safety–Can We Guarantee Our Students' Safety At College?


Occasionally readers will write in with interesting ideas and share their thoughts with me.  I value this dialogue very much, and often my readers will really challenge my thinking on particular subjects.
Yesterday a reader wrote in with a proposal to rank colleges according to how safe they are for our kids.  The reader is a provider of campus security services, and is interested in increasing campus security. Rather than rephrase the reader’s remarks, I’ll just present them here for you to consider.

A Reader Writes
The purpose for my contacting you today was that I am finding an ever increasing number of colleges weigh the risk over safety due to budget cuts. Specifically, many, if not most, campuses tend to avoid improving measures on their campus to ensure better safety like emergency call stations, lighting, video surveillance, and others. I realize that my input is heavily biased seeing that I am an integrator, but none the less, I am also a father who looks at these campuses and their lack of safety measures and grow increasingly frustrated. I have confronted many people about their current lack of concern and they all tell me they have no funding or that if they submit proposals for improvements, they are immediately declined.

So I guess my question is simply, when do we warn students which schools are less protected, have less interest to improve their measures to ensure safety, and prefer to take their chances until something happens? I would love to present students and parents with an idea of how “safe” a college or university is because that is the FIRST thing I am worried about for my daughter when she goes one day.
One example is a college that has little to no video surveillance on campus, zero emergency phones or call stations, and told me directly that their city never has any issues and the community wouldn’t like all the extra noise or eyes. 2 months later a female student was abducted on her way to her car, taken to a remote location, sexually assaulted and beaten, driven back to the school, thrown out of the vehicle, and the perp is still at large. Another University designed a panic room where a student is required to run into a building and slam a door shut. There is a camera inside, but none outside. I commented that I dont know many women that could hope to outrun someone already on top of them, or slam a door shut if the assailant is bigger and stronger then them. So really the camera (which has a horrible view) is only to watch the action as it transpires? 6 months later a young male was beaten just outside this room….never even making it there.
Many of these college campuses have horrible safety and security means to protect students and I think its sad that the deans spend money on anything other than protecting their main source of income…the students. So how about we start putting together a list of the most and least safe college campuses in the US.

It took me a while to draft a response, because my interlocutor really got me thinking about campus security, and about the relative responsibility of college and university administrators to provide security on their campuses.  Rather than focus on the many improvements that campuses have made to their security system since incidents like those at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois, I chose to take a broader view in my response.  Here is what I wrote:
My Response
Dear Sir,
Thank you for your note.
The best statistics available on campus safety and crime are reported in the IPEDS data gathered by the US government.  They are available at the Department of Education’s “College Navigator” website.
I respect your wish that campuses endeavor to become safe places. And most, by the statistics, are very safe.  Of course, terrible things happen–on campuses, in the suburbs, in churches, in shopping malls, on trains, in parking lots, and just about everywhere that human beings congregate.
But safety can never be guaranteed.  You could spend millions of dollars creating the sort of surveillance state you describe.  You could try to plan for every contingency.  You could make people take off their shoes and do a body scan, as we do at the airport, every time they set foot on a college campus.  And still, bad things will happen.
I respect your views and your worries.  But the sorts of solutions you describe are something out of Aldous Huxley, and frankly, that is a world I hope I never have to inhabit:  watched, controlled, gated, and in a state of constant fear.  To take this obsession with protection to its logical conclusion in a country in which the 2nd Amendment has been interpreted to mean that “freedom” includes the right to carry concealed weapons, why not just issue every student a side-arm? If someone threatens your child’s safety, instruct her just to shoot first and ask questions later:  efficient, effective, and cheap.
Speaking of expense, I’ll point out (as the college administrators with whom you have spoken certainly have) that the cost of your solutions would be very high, both in terms of the technology and the manpower to actually monitor all those cameras you will mount on every lamppost.  Tuition already is approaching $50k at many colleges and universities.  More demands on universities to supply this level of “safety” will have to be borne by someone.  And that someone will be you, as well as me.  Shall we vote to raise our taxes?  Or shall we just pass the cost on to parents who are already deep in debt?  Or maybe we could fire a few professors, increase class sizes, and close down the athletic centers in order to increase the level of security?
I ask myself when Americans will stop insisting that our schools, from preschool on up, address every social ill in addition to educating our kids. Schools have to supply health services, psychiatric services, family planning services, nutritional services, accessibility to the disabled, language support to non-English speakers, transportation–and heavy doses of financial aid to ensure that the poor have as much assess to an education as the rich.  These things may all be socially necessary, but are they the proper role of educators?  Schools should focus on providing an education: can they really be expected to do it all (and without raising taxes or private tuition)?  You lament that “deans spend on anything other than protecting..their students.”  I would say that their responsibility as deans is to provide education, first and foremost.  I think their stated spending priorities are appropriate.  Security is not the primary reason for a university’s existence, and is not primarily what the taxpayers or payers of private tuition expect.  A certain level of safety and security is necessary, of course, and statistics reported by the Federal government indicate that most campuses are pretty safe.
Our schools cannot guarantee our safety, any more than our governments can. Life can be unsafe.  It contains risks.  It has always been so, and it will ever be so.  The statistics on campus crime show us that the overwhelming majority of campuses in this country are relatively safe places to live and learn. Yes, a small number crazy things happen, like the ones you describe–and worse:  Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois, etc. Nonetheless, to believe that a bunch of cameras or body scans or toiletries in a plastic baggie will “guarantee” our safety is a delusion.  And unfortunately this delusion is turning our country into the nightmare that Huxley envisioned.
Thank you for taking the time to share your views with me, and for inviting the dialogue.  I wish you well in your quest for an objective, fact-based, meaningful ranking of campus security.
Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant


Archive by Date

Join our Facebook Group ››
Stay informed about college admissions trends and ask questions of experts who can give you Great College Advice.