The Safer Campus
Let's Work Together
- By Mark Rowh
- August 1st, 2015
PHOTO COURTESY OF WEBER STATE UNIVERSITY
When last year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration turned into a melee leading to the arrest of scores of UMass Amherst students, university officials took action. After commissioning a report by former Boston Police Chief Edward Davis, they followed up with a concerted effort to improve relations with the local community.
The area of town-gown relations has always been a challenge, but institutions are finding new ways to cooperate with the communities where they are located, especially when it comes to safety and security. That has been a priority at UMass Amherst, according to Tony Maroulis, director of community relations, external relations and university events.
“We’ve had a number of notable successes over the past year, many of which were recommended in the Davis Report,” he says. New measures have included improved coordination between campus and community police departments, a “UMass Proud” campaign which was well received by students, and use of community policing tactics in handling students. Weekly meetings of campus and community safety officials are also being held to debrief and share information around student activities.
Too, the university has provided financial support to the town during peak weekends during the semester. The support allows the Amherst Fire Department to have a full staff of EMTs, and reduces the need for mutual aid ambulance service in fall and spring semesters.
“This assistance has proved critical and has been noted as a real town-gown success,” Maroulis says. “Additionally, our support of town police and their command of mutual aid officers from the area during the St. Patrick’s event was a very successful event, and likely will be duplicated for at least another year.”
Looking to the future, the university is now in the process of hiring a neighborhood liaison who will be assigned to help mitigate and prevent student-resident issues in campus-edge neighborhoods. The town has already landed a grant for a similar position, and the two entities will work closely together in creating a better relationship in areas where there has traditionally been tension between students and neighbors, Maroulis says.
In improving community relations while also enhancing security, a key is looking at multiple points of interaction, according to Jerry Roderick, director of public safety at Washington College in Chestertown, MD.
“The town-gown relationships encompass a large group of critical people in a given community,” he says. “When it comes to the safety of our institution, we partner with our first responders in planning, responding, mitigation and recovery from threatening incidents.” Knowing all the agency leaders and working regularly with them has improved the capabilities of college staff for responding in coordinated measures to resolve issues, he adds.
Roderick and the local police chief have a phone call meeting every Monday morning to review weekend incidents and plan for the coming week.
“We work together, sharing resources when appropriate,” Roderick says. When requested, college staff will scan our camera data to aid in investigations the town is conducting of crimes occurring near campus. The town, in turn, assists with access to the crime lab, investigative assistance and additional officers for special events.
“These joint efforts are force multipliers for both agencies and are effective in reducing criminal behavior on and around our campus,” Roderick says.
A similar approach has been taken at Coker College in Hartsville, SC, reports Tony Floyd, executive vice president. “We have a very close working relationship with the Hartsville city manager, police chief and the fire chief,” he says. “We also regularly consult the codes enforcement office on safety issues.”
Recent efforts have included holding tabletop exercises for crisis management. In one recent exercise, college staff included the fire chief to provide guidance and offer candid advice. The school has also made strides in lighting safety and other areas.
“We are just blocks from City Hall and the city has a great presence in and around our campus,” Floyd says.
Partnerships have also been successful at Utah’s Weber State University, which has recently won recognition for its strong working relationship with the city of Ogden. Allison Hess, public relations director and a member of the college town marketing committee, says the university works closely with emergency responders in the community, and held a joint training exercise two years ago.
Other initiatives cover issues other than security, but still contribute to positive relationships. One cooperative effort is a long-standing partnership with Intermountain Healthcare (IHC), focusing on outreach education, clinical experiences and guest lectures. The two organizations have also worked together to address nursing and medical laboratory scientist shortages.
A community engagement program led by students in which they volunteer with organizations such as Special Olympics, Habitat for Humanity, Best Buddies and the YMCA has also been well received. Other initiatives range from cooperative research with a nearby Air Force base to giving schoolchildren free access to the university’s planetarium.
Also, work is now under way to improve communications with diverse groups in the community, including establishing a diversity connections group and charter.
Hess advises campus leaders to communicate openly with community representatives and to be willing to take the first step.
“Our college-town relationship is as vibrant as it is today because people from both sides met in the same room,” she says. “That conversation led to interesting, robust and surprising collaborations that are expanding, strengthening and lifting the entire community.”
For colleges and universities, planning for safety begins with the campus planning process, notes Celine Larkin, senior planner with HGA Architects and Engineers.
“A campus safety plan and a design strategy should weigh on physical design and how it impacts both real safety and students’ sense of safety,” she says. It should start with a look at safety concerns surrounding the campus, as well as on it. This might include factors such as the type of crime that surrounds an institution and the physical attributes of the neighborhood that students traverse daily.
Larkin notes that any plan adopted should demonstrate benefits to the surrounding community.
“This tells the community that they matter,” she says. “Safety, as well as economic benefit, educational potential and enjoyment, are worth a joint effort to promote.”
To break down perceived barriers between town and college, she suggests identifying programs or services that can benefit the community. Examples might include a nursing school or social service program with a practicum program; community education center; publicly accessible library; sports center; or a performing arts center that might offer after-school programs for children and provide service opportunities for undergraduates and engagement for townsfolk.
“If there is a sense of belonging, the community is more likely to be vested in keeping their eyes on the street for everyone,” Larkin says.
Simply spending time together can pay dividends, Floyd notes.
“Invite city leaders, workers and officers onto your campus frequently,” he says. “Schedule meetings for joint planning purposes to brainstorm for the future.”
He adds that it’s important not to be shy about asking for help, because cities have great resources and expertise that may surprise you. And try to consider the city’s viewpoint when problems arise.
“Be a good neighbor and be patient with each other on tough issues,” Floyd says. “Always remember that you are in it together.”
Along with proper planning, consider these measures suggested by Celine Larkin of HGA Architects and Engineers:
- Active pedestrian areas between the campus boundaries and the neighborhood to reinforce a connection between the two.
- Mixed-use commercial developments with active storefronts to help lower crime.
- Attractive gates and fences with university branding that guide the public to entrances and exits along well-lit, well-marked pathways.
- A branded “University District” that defines boundaries, but also bonds institutions and communities.
- Promotion of active watching by placing cafés, gathering spaces, outdoor classrooms and academic buildings with large windows at frequent intervals along public paths or plazas.
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.