Student safety: how to maintain a secure environment

In part one of ICEF Monitor’s examination of student safety, we discussed the rising trend of campus crime, and the growing awareness of the problem by prospective international students and their parents. We also discussed how recruiters might ease students’ concerns.

Today’s conclusion will examine harassment in both the academic environment and online that may arise as result of students’ cultural differences, gender, or sexual orientation. We will also look at various safety measures, and discuss what secondary schools, colleges, universities, and language schools can do maintain safe environments.

How pervasive is student harassment?

Hard data on the harassment of, specifically, international students are not easily located, however recent, highly-publicised incidents of campus harassment have caught the attention of learning institutions and law enforcement authorities. For example:

  • In Australia, one in four Year 4 to 9 students reports being bullied every few weeks or more.
  • In the US, 40% to 60% of female students report experiencing sexual harassment on campus, and more than 13% of women report having been stalked in college.
  • And as recently as October 2012, a 19 year old student in India committed suicide after being subjected to harassment by a fellow youth.

Harassment often takes place in person, but incidents of suicide on college campuses related to online harassment show that the Internet can expose students to serious emotional dangers. In the European Union, approximately 18% of European young people had been bullied/harassed/stalked via the Internet and mobile phones. And in the US, the highly publicised case of a gay Rutgers University student’s death (as a result of online harassment) was one of five suicides by gay teenagers in a three-week period.

While suicide is perhaps the worst outcome in harassment scenarios, even less drastic consequences can be severe, and include everything from psychological problems to damaged academic standing. In the US, for example, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that nearly 82% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students reported experiencing harassment at school in the previous year because of their sexual orientation. The GLSEN study also revealed that the grade point average of US students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation was lower than for students who were less often harassed, and increased levels of victimisation were related to increased levels of depression and decreased levels of self-esteem.

Harassment is often conducted via the Internet, but there are numerous other online dangers such as fraud, phishing, identity theft, and the like. International students may be specifically targeted by con artists, as in the case of a recent scam in which international students were tricked out of personal information by callers claiming to work for the UK Border Agency.

Technological approaches to campus crime

Technological solutions to campus and online dangers have begun to emerge. For example, after two years of research and development, OCAD University, an art and design college in Toronto, and the personal security company Guardly have begun offering students and faculty a free smartphone app that allows users to communicate with police in the event of an emergency.

The app works in tandem with Guardly Command, a web application that contacts dispatch personnel when emergencies occur within campus boundaries. The programme provides caller identification and location, and can relay to dispatchers crucial facts uploaded into a profile by the user, such as medical conditions. During an emergency, dispatchers can speak with the caller by phone or secure instant messaging.

In Australia, some schools are using online multilingual tools to encourage international students to (anonymously) report incidents of abuse, such as the one set up by the Newcastle University Students’ Association (NUSA).

And on the preventive side, several tech companies, including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, have partnered with the non-profit organisation Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) to build what they’ve called A Platform For Good, a digital destination for teens, parents, and teachers to learn about and share information regarding online safety.

What can institutions do to help protect their students?

Educational institutions have a strong interest in protecting their students, but may not always know what steps to take. The Jed Foundation, a US-based organisation working to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among America’s college students, has released a free, comprehensive guide for colleges and universities which can help them to establish new campus teams and manage existing ones.

In addition, here are a few more tips which any institution can use to create and maintain a secure environment:

  • Urge students to stay alert – Being on campus can create a false sense of security for students, but they should be urged to take the same basic precautions they would anywhere (i.e., stay away from deserted, unfamiliar places, be aware of one’s surroundings, keep dormitory rooms locked, be cautious about drinking too much, and so forth).
  • Share info – Institutions should be sure that their websites contain clear information on student safety; a virtual tour is also a good place to highlight emergency phones or other related services on campus. Phone and contact information for campus security, police, and paramedics should be accessible on the web, on campus, and on student ID cards, and students should be urged to programme the numbers into their phones. Use your school’s college newspaper and social media accounts like Twitter regularly to alert students to problems on campus, and use students’ mobile phone numbers in emergencies.
  • Safety seminars – All of this can be impressed upon students at orientation or during safety seminars, online courses, or webinars, perhaps conducted in partnership with local law enforcement or fitness centers that can teach a self-defense class. In Manchester, England, for example, police enacted a Safe Student operation, part of which involves officers giving safety talks. Students are also encouraged to join a Manchester Student Safety Facebook page, created by the police, the Manchester City Council, and local universities.
  • Be prepared – The Manchester Facebook page also contains updates on crime in the area, which can be extremely important because police departments across the globe have begun to understand – thanks to computerised tracking – that once certain types of crimes are committed in a neighborhood, the likelihood of their recurrence greatly increases. Providing current crime information can help students to be on heightened alert when appropriate.
  • Provide help on-demand – For students who must be out at night alone, schools can offer nocturnal escort services, or have designated safe spots on campus. In the US, some institutions have threat assessment teams that address and respond to situations involving threats or acts of violence on campus.
  • Supervise – Provide supervision on organised events, set curfew times for underage students studying overseas, and thoroughly vet homestay providers (make sure host families are licensed) to ensure safety and quality.
  • Give teachers support – The US Department of Education, for example, has created a series of toolkits to help instructors build a safe and supportive classroom.
  • Work with the government – educators and administrators in the US are taking a new stance against cyber bullying, with 11 states reviewing proposals to update or implement cyber bullying laws. For example, in Texas, a law comes into effect this school year that requires schools to have policies for dealing with cyber bullying that occurs on school property or at school events. And in Kansas, the education department launched a new anti-bullying telephone hotline to supplement a 2008 law that mandates that schools have cyber bullying policies.
  • Collaborate with national associations or nonprofits – On the other side of the world, the Discovery Foundation, a not-for-profit charity that runs programmes centred on supporting better outcomes for children, offers self-development courses for all New Zealand teenagers, and is working to implement new measures to crackdown on cyber bullies using text, Facebook and other social media tools.

Outreach to the campus and wider community

Elizabeth Shepherd, research director for the British Council’s Education Intelligence Unit, recently wrote in The Guardian that “being safe in an overseas study environment is not a one-dimensional issue. Safety cannot be created by informing or changing one element of the international student experience – a holistic approach involving all participants is needed.”

She goes on to explain that each autumn thousands of students, many from other countries, descend upon cities and towns, and if those communities are unprepared, or haven’t been informed about the benefits of welcoming international students, problems can arise. Shepherd suggests working with the wider community, making all parties fully aware of the expectations upon them.

Commenting on the findings of a recent report which ICEF Monitor reviewed in part one of this series, Shepherd said:

“Our research shows that personal safety is of increasing importance to international students, whose unique situation can make them particularly vulnerable. The key to making them feel secure is integration – both with students at the institution where they are studying and within the local community. Providing a safe environment for international students requires institutions and national organisations to be proactive rather than reactive to safety issues.”

Domestic students, too, can be made aware of the benefits of hosting their international counterparts. Research has shown that intercultural interaction between domestic and international students can be low – a report from New Zealand, though dated 2001, indicates that international students expect and desire greater contact with domestic students. And a more recent report from June 2012 states that in the US, nearly 40% of the survey respondents (454 international students at US college campuses in the South and Northeast) had no close American friends and would have liked more meaningful interaction with people born in America.

Such interaction amongst foreign and domestic students is unlikely to occur spontaneously, therefore institutions can promote more intercultural activities, helping to create a more cohesive, safer campus.

Ultimately, the international student’s experience at his or her chosen college, university, or language school can be just as safe as it is educational if he or she is properly informed about the dangers that may await, and given access to the many resources that have been developed to avoid them.



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