You are here

Community Colleges

Securing the Community College

Strategies for managing security issues at two-year institutions
University Business, Jul 2009

THE DANGERS PEOPLE MIGHT encounter on a college campus are the same as those on a city street. Since there is no way to know when a security incident might occur (unless, say, someone calls in a bomb threat), campus leaders are relying on proper training to enable their security personnel to predict such incidents and respond appropriately.

While security personnel at community colleges deal with the same challenges faced by their counterparts at four-year institutions, there are some twists presented by the more fluid nature of the population at two-year institutions.

'Community colleges are leading the charge in creating behavioral intervention teams.' -Brett Sokolow, National Center for Higher Education Risk Management

“Our students go home at night and we don’t know what they are doing at home, but they can still bring issues back to campus with them,” says Gary Lyle, chief of the Department of Public Safety at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) in Maryland. “At a four-year their roommates might alert people to issues.”

The use of technology and maintaining good communication at every shift change help the Anne Arundel Department of Public Safety keep an eye on campus

Lyle says his department engages in “community-oriented policing” to build relationships with constituents on campus. One officer is assigned to meet regularly with student organizations. A behavioral intervention team was also formed after the tragedy at Virginia Tech to improve communication with faculty and staff. “It is important to make sure our people are seeing and being seen,” Lyle says.

“Community colleges are leading the charge in creating behavioral intervention teams,” says Brett Sokolow, president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management (NCHERM). The teams pull together point people from across campus to receive reports of disruptive or problematic behavior. They then investigate and develop an appropriate response.

Earlier this year, NCHERM presented a six-part online “Campus Safety 101” course (created by Magna Publications), which helps train faculty and staff to recognize “red flag” behaviors. “The point is to tell people who aren’t familiar with psychology what to look for,” Sokolow explains.

“When you think about campus safety, you think about students, but [colleges] are also large employers,” says Mario Scalora, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as well as a consultant with local, state, and federal law enforcement in assessing predictive risk factors regarding threatening or violent activity toward public officials and institutions. Just as the fluid student population makes it difficult to understand outside forces influencing their behavior, the larger percentage of adjunct and part-time faculty employed at community colleges can make it harder to become familiar with everyone working on campus. Add that concern to the likelihood a community college will have satellite campuses and outreach programs that bring local citizens onto campus—making for a much larger population to watch.

Community colleges can deal with this issue through using smart ID cards that control entrance and exit points, and increasing their use of security cameras, suggests Dilip Sarangan, an industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan North American Electronics & Security Practice. Good locations for cameras include parking lots and other open areas, the vicinity of blue emergency phones, laboratories with expensive equipment, and data storage areas.

Anne Arundel's security team got a standing ovation when faculty learned about their accreditation.

Video analytic software can help make cameras more effective, says Tony Hackett, a security system design expert with Aimetis. The company’s intelligent video surveillance software can help identify an abandoned bag or recognize when someone is traveling against the expected flow of traffic. The ability to send live images to a local police officer’s patrol car can help shape the response to an incident as it occurs. Hackett says some schools have also deployed the system in bookstores to help prevent shoplifting.

Physical security isn’t the sole solution, though, says Scalora. Giving people a place to talk is important as well. “You have to create a caring environment for people,” he says. “We don’t want to change the quality of our environment just because we have safety concerns.”

In Nebraska, Scalora says UNL is working with area community colleges to create a training network and provide a resource to which the various campuses can turn. He also suggests teaming with local law enforcement in order to “think about prevention and not just reacting to crime.”

Creating these relationships comes down to personality and hard work. “I’m lucky because I came from the surrounding police force in the community,” says Lyle. “They know we strive to be professional.” As further proof of that professionalism, the security department at Anne Arundel is the first at a community college to receive accreditation from the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA).

The process is based on 225 standards that are appropriate for campus and public safety and is derived from the standards used by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, along with several specific to campuses, such as the Clery Act and blue light boxes, explains Jack Leonard, director of accreditation at IACLEA.

Once candidate schools complete a self-assessment, which includes gathering supporting documents, a team of assessors reviews the documents, tours campus, and interviews campus constituents. Accreditation is valid for three years. During that time the campus sends a report confirming continued compliance.

Deputy Chief Cleveland Smith oversaw the process at AACC, which he said took nearly two years. “The majority of the requirements we were already doing,” Smith says. “In some cases we had to fine-tune some substandards.”

One hurdle was adding the requirement of a psychological test to the department’s hiring process. The support of campus administration was important in getting the requirement approved. The requirement, combined with stricter education and physical fitness standards, has improved the applicant pool, Smith says.

AACC President Marty Smith supported the process throughout. “I see this as one piece of a much larger goal to be sure we have a secure system in place and the ability to handle a crisis,” she says. “It’s very consistent with what we are as a learning community to embrace these processes.”

Leonard confirms that the support of campus leaders and the ability to work with other campus units are important in completing the process. Capital expenses could also be involved, such as the need for a generator to provide a redundant power source for an emergency communication system before accreditation is approved.

With fees based on full-time enrollment and ranging from $4,896 to $7,170, as well as other related expenses, the accreditation process is neither cheap nor easy. But Lyle asserts the process is worthwhile: “I know there is a dollar cost involved, but to not at least look at it is a mistake. It can’t do anything but make you better.”

Smith agrees. “I’m pleased to be able to say my VPs and board of trustees understand this is an area of expenditure that has to be enhanced. You can’t put your community at risk.”