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The Safer Campus

Wearing Many Hats

safety officers on campus 

PHOTOS COURTESY OF ALLIEDBARTON

The constituencies of America’s colleges and universities are changing. Many schools are seeing new populations arrive on campus, and colleges are competing for a diminishing and changing student body. Schools are actively striving to sustain diverse cultures and adapt as their traditional population changes.

The impact of these changes on campus security is significant. Just a short time ago, security officers were expected to be reactive — checking on potential risks and responding when something happened. Today’s security officer is an integral, proactive part of creating a safe environment — preparing for all hazards as well as actively promoting a safer place to study, work and visit. Perhaps the most dramatic security shift is the change from security officers being behind-the-scenes enforcers and responders to serving as collaborative promoters of the college’s culture.

Students come from all walks of life, including suburban and urban teens and young adults, single parents working toward a better life, first-generation college attendees, dream seekers from other countries, returning military veterans, adults pursuing mid-life realignments and retirees seeking to keep their minds sharp. Faculty and staff similarly arrive from around the world to engage in the classroom, the laboratory and in public service. The student, the parent and the aspiring faculty member experience wonderment and confusion from the first moment that they arrive on campus. They look for help and guidance as they find their way, and need to know that they are safe on campus. Their first contact is often a security officer who is an essential part of rolling out a hospitable, informative and safe welcome mat. Each first impression needs to signal that they can fit into the friendly campus and feel confident about their journey. As a result, the emphasis on customer service in the security role is growing.

Today’s campus public safety officer doesn’t view his or her profession as a job, but as a calling. A commitment to campus security excellence must begin with recruiting and hiring, and it is essential to hire the right personality type as well as to identify security officers who will work well within the demographics and culture of a particular campus. While the right fit is critical, it is just the beginning. We know it takes a continuous commitment to build off this base with training and practice so that security officers understand how to conduct themselves on campus.

So much more is expected of a campus security officer today. The shift from the traditional security-only mentality to campus security officers who take on multiple roles of first responder, customer service liaison and brand ambassador has fundamentally changed the job. And, we are expecting the work to be done by individuals who have lived in the shadow of these schools though possibly never attended, but must now learn their value systems. What are some of the major issues that today’s security officers’ encounter?

Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Substance abuse is an ever-present problem and catalyst to violence. Training helps educate the security officer in how to identify an individual under the influence of drugs or alcohol and how to effectively and safely manage the situation. Security officers are trained to understand their enforcement responsibilities and their obligation to “see something and say something” before tragedy occurs. Many colleges are creating an environment where heavy drinking and drug use are not tolerated. Prevention programs are increasingly promoting improved behaviors with regard to these substances, as well as the anticipation of a drinking or drug-related problem before it occurs.

Interpersonal Abuse

Physical and emotional abuse is a growing threat on college campuses. Security officers are trained to handle interpersonal abuse scenarios by learning how to define, identify and respond to domestic violence incidents, which can include rape and assault, stalking, verbal abuse and threatening texts and emails.

The Clery Act has increased awareness of major crimes. Now the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act requires schools to be more transparent, collaborative and accountable for a range of these behaviors. Security officers must know how to identify, record and report incidents, and refer victims for help.

Gender Discrimination

As campus populations become more diverse, promoting acceptance isn’t just the expectation — it is the law. The heightened sensitivity to gender discrimination extends to all individuals, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and those questioning their sexual identities. Campus security officers must be sensitive and proactive to the needs of all community members and nurture an environment free from discrimination.

Cultural Diversity

New challenges arise as students, faculty, staff and visitors represent a wide array of backgrounds, cultures and traditions. Security officers help support the overall mission to establish and nurture an environment that values diversity and is free from racism and other forms of prejudice, intolerance or harassment.

Workplace Violence on Campus

Active shooter situations on campuses are widely publicized and feared. Any violence is clearly too much, and today’s colleges and universities prepare by engaging in effective crisis planning. An incident response plan provides a framework within which a college or university can manage the crisis, creating clear and defined objectives for recovery. These plans include operational and strategic overviews to ensure that a crisis is contained and controlled properly. Communications with staff, students, the media and the community, together with university leadership’s ability to determine post-crisis goals and recovery strategies, can determine the college’s survival prospects.

safety officers on campusAll of these issues require awareness, sensitivity, an appreciation for the campus environment and a commitment to supporting the campus’ culture and policies. Today’s campus security officers receive continual, state-of-the-art training to fulfill their responsibilities and understand the regulatory environment of a campus. Above and beyond all of their training, campus security officers must understand their role as observer, protector and champion of students. They are trained to understand young adult behavior, be sensitive to different cultures and realize the anxiety of newcomers to campus looking to find their way. Training, practice and experience helps them better understand the needs and concerns of the student population, communicate more effectively and positively, and develop productive and professional relationships with students and community members.

Campus security plays a pivotal and evolving role in four-year colleges and universities, community colleges, two-year colleges and trade and vocational schools. Effective campus security finds the right balance between creating an open and free environment and upholding the duty to protect people. This starts with the acknowledgement that security must be part of the campus’ evolution. The right solution balances expenditures between personnel, technology, facility design and crime prevention education to develop a program that is efficient and affordable.

Today’s security officers are the forefront of an academic institution’s brand, interacting with campus community members while serving as the eyes and ears to help keep the campus safe. With new expectations and growing responsibilities, the campus security officer continues to evolve.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

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