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US educators, student leaders, and governments combine forces to improve campus safety

It is well established that safety is a key concern for both international students and parents and an issue that weighs heavily in the choice of institution and location for study abroad. A report from Hong Kong, for example, says that incidents such as the Boston Marathon bombings and the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech have made more families reconsider where their students should be going for their education abroad.

These high-profile incidents raise important questions for prospective students and their families with respect to safety issues in the US, the world’s leading international study destination. It is important to note, however, that the US (and its campuses) are still relatively safe. In a ranking of overall crime in 133 countries around the world, the US ranks just 45th – well behind the numbers for many countries sending high numbers of students into the country, including Venezuela (2nd), Nigeria (8th), Brazil (13th), and Mexico (41st), and also well below countries that commonly receive US students going abroad such as South Africa (6th) and Costa Rica (22nd).

In today’s post, we place the issue in context and explore some of the recent legislation, policies, and practices designed to promote and improve campus safety in the US.

Yes means yes

New international students may be taken aback when their US university orientation sessions offer them information on how to correctly ask or give permission for sexual relations. However, the issue has loomed large in the US in recent years.

“Affirmative consent,” whereby the definition of sexual assault and application of violations veers from following prior “no means no” standards to “yes means yes,” is now prescribed by law in California and quickly spreading across hundreds of campuses nationwide.

According to an article in Inside Higher Ed, the new paradigm requires sexual partners to seek and receive clear consent from each other, and further stipulates that consent must be given without alcohol or drugs being factors in decision-making.

A poster from the Consent is Sexy campaign

While the shift may unnerve many – including campus administrators and police trying to investigate accusations –  this increased focus on preventing sexual assault is just one prong in an increasingly aggressive multi-layered approach from lawmakers and universities to increase campus safety at institutions of higher education.

From reporting to action

Under provisions of US legislation – the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, first signed into law in 1990 – universities are obligated to:

  • Keep a log available to the public of all criminal acts occurring on their campus;
  • Disclose crime statistics not only on the campus but in public areas near the campus for seven crimes ranging from homicide to arson;
  • Report various offenses such as liquor and drug violations – both for actual arrests and for incidents handled within the campus disciplinary system;
  • Publish an annual security report, required every 1 October, that details crime statistics as well as security processes and policies in place;
  • Issue timely warnings for any type of criminal behaviour that may be a threat to students and employees.

The Clery Act is meant to counteract what was seen as a general unwillingness in the past to fully disclose crime on campuses for fear of losing potential students. Failure to comply satisfactorily with the Act’s provisions may lead to schools being fined or losing the ability to offer federal financial aid programmes, which would be a death knell for many institutions.

The largest fine levied thus far, US$357,000, was assessed to Eastern Michigan University for the mismanagement of documents and processes related to a murder committed in a campus dorm. The US Department of Justice strongly increased the number and amounts of fines in 2013, assessing eight universities nearly US$1.5 million – an amount roughly equal to that collected in the 22 previous years of the act’s existence. The increased vigilance from the government to see that crime information is collected and shared is coupled with a growing awareness of the public, both domestically and internationally, regarding safety issues and the availability of more reliable data for investigating a specific school’s record.

All Clery Act information is available on a government website so that prospective students or parents can easily compare various institutions. Of course, where there are statistics and universities, there are rankings – and as is often the case, the various ranking systems out now have their critics.

Validation of that criticism is apparent from the simple fact that the top-rated (most unsafe) schools in two different rankings are not even listed in the other ranking. (The differences in rankings arise from underlying variations in the methodologies used by the two ranking systems.) Other problems with the methods for gathering statistics abound, including issues of both underreporting and double counting of incidents of crime arising from differences in reporting practice from institution to institution.

Schools are paying attention and increasing efforts not just to comply with the law but to also ensure that their campuses and environs are indeed safer. After the University of Southern California saw two separate incidents claim the lives of three Chinese graduate students, university administrators ramped up efforts to secure the campus, which hosts more international students than any other school in the country. In addition to obvious steps such as beefing up interaction with the Los Angeles Police Department and increasing both patrols and camera surveillance, the school also offered a free ride service to reduce pedestrian traffic and implemented more safety training awareness programmes for new students.

Indeed, universities across the country are making efforts to comply with the Clery Act and go beyond that to train their students and raise awareness of safety issues. Virtually every school’s website and orientation materials include campus safety tips such as those offered by Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Common tips include:

  • Walk in groups and don’t wear headphones when walking;
  • Learn the campus layout and all services provided such as ride services;
  • Always lock doors of living quarters and cars;
  • Register electronics, bicycles, and other items likely to be targeted for theft.

The response from business and government

Businesses are also jumping into the security effort. Even as “blue light emergency phone boxes” have recently become ubiquitous across US campuses, there is a rapid shift towards mobile-phone applications designed to enable campus residents to more quickly contact police from any location, report their whereabouts to peers, send out alerts or warnings when feeling themselves or others in danger, and easily contact counseling and other support services. These include applications such as EmergenSee, Campus Safe, and Live Safe.

US President Barack Obama has also taken an active role in the effort to improve campus safety, launching a campaign this past September called “It’s on Us,” in which students and other campus resident are urged to become the eyes and ears of public security at their schools and to intervene when seeing potentially harmful situations or attitudes. Hollywood stars, video game makers and well-known collegiate athletes are being recruited for public service announcements for the campaign.

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