The horrendous events at Virginia Tech have led to a number of inquiries about campus safety and retention. There are no good answers for what happened. For the parents, families, and the Virginia Tech community there will just be questions and anger. I know, unfortunately. My wife and I lost our 26-year-old son to meningitis just over a year ago. We deal with questions and anger over his death, and we know the emotions of the entire Virginia Tech community will be running very high. We also know that when others know of our loss, they worry more about their own children. The tragedy will affect every parent with a child on a campus. They will look at their own children and your campus with a very protective and wary eye.
- Have all employees learn how to say hello, smile, and ask others how they are doing once they enter the "greeting zone." Also, teach them how to follow up on less than positive responses from others. This is important. The school must indicate that it cares about each student to increase a collective sense of comfort through caring. This is also important for other reasons-from identifying upset students, to showing you care, to learning what can be done to improve customer service and increase retention.
- Stop petty theft on campus. This is for students and staff. A company named SafePlace (www.safeplace-usa.com) offers personal safes for students and staff that can be placed in residence hall rooms or in lockers for commuters.
- Fix every broken light on campus and increase lighting in parking lots, pathways, halls, and lobbies. Nothing generates a sense of fear like dark areas. Yes, I am fully aware that lighting wattage has been lowered to save money. Calculate the cost of the lighting against revenue lost from dropouts who feel unsafe on campus. Consider also the size of your evening college, and the revenue lost when adults are too nervous to park and walk. (I will send interested readers a previous article on lighting and retention I wrote just after 9/11. Send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
- Increase security patrols on foot and in cars. Park patrol cars in entrance areas to parking lots and other visible spots.
- Make sure the halls are clean and uncluttered. Remove old posters, flyers, and certainly anything ripped or scribbled over.
- Either wash off or paint over any graffiti, particularly in bathrooms. There is graffiti resistant paint that can help out in this area.
- Consider having all staff and students wear college IDs so it will be easy to determine if someone is not a member of the college community.
- Do not ignore the safety needs and concerns of staff. They will be the ones to project a sense of safety and security on campus. If they are nervous or afraid that their personal belongings may be stolen, they will surely project that to everyone around them.
- Get out of the office, walk the campus, and listen to students, staff, and the community. Keep in mind that we have two ears and just one mouth for a reason. People will feel safer if you are among them. Listening to them can also alleviate quite a bit of anxiety, which often comes out of the feeling that the school does not care about them individually.
- Use various ways to reach the community. E-mail and flyers will help. Let the community know you care and are doing things to increase an already safe campus. Communicate changes and improvements.
So how can we reduce some of the intense feelings over safety and security services that will be present on every campus? Parents and the media are going to want to know how administrators will make certain their children are safe. Keep in mind that articles like The Wall Street Journal's October 2006 piece, "FBI Stats Show Many Colleges Understate Campus Crime" will be kept in front of the media and public.
This is a time when issuing a policy statement or reprinting brochures on campus safety will not do. People will want action, visible signs that the school is taking steps to make the campus even more secure. If the campus is safe, great. But parents are going to want even more safety, assurance, and visible actions.
"Visible" is an important word here. The campus is a physical metaphor for the tone and atmosphere that defines a sense of security, safety, and control. Since we all, and particularly our students, think metaphorically, buildings, grounds, bathrooms, interiors, and all that is visible inside become metaphors, statements of meaning and values, just as objects in a poem set the tone and add to perception of meaning.
Small things and small events can also add to the symbolism that contributes to the appreciation of students and parents for the safety, security, and protection that are in place-that the campus and dorms are as safe as they can be.
The appearances of safety are extremely important. The "broken window" approach that helped bring a greater sense of security-and some argue, real safety increases-to New York City in the 1990s will help here too. The theory developed by Wilson and Kelling in 1982 goes something like this: If someone breaks a window in a building and that window is not repaired, people will assume that no one cares about the building. Therefore, people will believe that it is okay to break more windows. Soon the building will have only broken windows. It is also likely that more damage will be done to the building. But if the first window is fixed, and refixed if needed, it is a statement that breaking windows is unacceptable. The appearance becomes a reality in peoples' minds.
I was a skeptic at first when Police Chief Bill Bratton had the New York City police stop homeless people from trying to earn a buck by cleaning car windows at traffic lights, and also enforce public nuisance laws and laws against public drinking and littering. But it seems that the enforcement of the laws against these nuisance crimes created a metaphor for safety and enforcement for New York City. People believed the NYPD cared. The feeling seemed to be, "If they are attentive to small nuisance crimes that make me feel uneasy, they must really be doing a solid job on 'real crime.'" Tourism increased, as did the public's sense of security. And real crime dropped. (There are arguments as to whether or not these strategies were the factor, but New York City did become one of the safest cities in the nation.)
When I was chancellor at a college, we employed a version of the broken window theory after a number of books, iPods, purses, computers, and other personal items were stolen from students and staff. People were becoming uneasy about their safety in buildings as a result. They also assumed the administration was not doing anything to increase security. Word was going out to the community that the school was not safe. Enrollment and retention were being hurt.
We were working on the problem, but people didn't realize it or care. They just felt unsafe. We finally caught a thief who gave us names of others with whom he was working. We called the police and had them walked out of the building during a lunch hour to give the action maximum exposure. I also called a college meeting, cancelled classes so students could come, and made some announcements related to safety. We hired three more security people for the building, changed all the locks, enforced the locked door policy when a room was empty, and randomly checked college ID cards. Anyone without a card was escorted off campus. We also put in place a parking sticker registration program; any car without a displayed sticker was towed. We improved lighting in parking and perimeter areas and would not tolerate inappropriate language or behavior in classrooms, halls, the cafeteria, the library, and so forth.
Faculty were asked to make sure attendance was taken and that late students were not admitted without prior notice. Any student who left a class was not allowed back in and was marked absent. Anyone sleeping in class was to be ejected; cell phones were to be off in class, and anyone who had a cell phone that rang during class was asked to leave for the day. Computers were to be used for class purposes only. I personally assured faculty members that I would support them in enforcing all this so long as they applied classroom decorum fairly and consistently, and without prejudice.
Within days, surveys, comments, and interviews showed that the campus was a different place. Students were thankful for our actions. They felt more secure and happier at the school. They were pleased with the classroom decorum enforcement since it changed the learning environment. Students felt inappropriate classroom behavior was cheating them. They were learning less as bad behavior interrupted class and the professor. One student summed it up well: "Now we see you do give a damn about us and our learning, and we care more about the school now too. I was outta here at the end of semester, but I'll stay now."
Considering the various constituencies and politics on a campus, having the campus police/security enforce every rule will not necessarily work. For a few days, maybe even weeks, the community might accept greater enforcement, but that will end when accusations regarding the oppression of academic or other campus freedoms begin. What needs to be worked on are the objective correlatives that will be accepted and will create a visible and increased sense of security for students, parents, and the community.