Safety and Security at U.S. Campuses

Universities take special care to ensure safety of its students with measures like emergency phone booths, safety apps and walk escorts.

By Natasa Milas

October 2022

Safety and Security at U.S. Campuses

U.S. universities have safety measures like campus police, transportation facilities, emergency alarm systems, security cameras and on-campus housing options in place to help their communities feel safe on campus. Courtesy University of Michigan DPSS.

One of the main topics on the minds of prospective students and parents while shortlisting universities is the security measures taken on campus to ensure a safe and stress-free learning environment. U.S. universities take special care to make their students feel secure on campus. While smaller colleges use the services of local police to keep their campuses secure, large universities have their own police departments to cover their vast campuses.

For students new to U.S. campuses, it is important to understand the frameworks and measures that have been set up to manage emergencies and situations that might make them feel unsafe. Safety measures include campus police, transportation facilities, emergency alarm systems, security cameras and on-campus housing options. The University of South Florida (USF), for example, has a dedicated university police department, a university safety app to make emergency calls to the police, self-defense programs, environmental awareness and personal safety courses, golf cart transportation and escorts on campus, and off-campus safety resources to assist with selecting an apartment. “The University of South Florida has three campuses in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, with the largest of these situated in Tampa–a large thriving metropolitan area,” says Althea Johnson, assistant director of media relations with the University Communications and Marketing team at USF. “The university’s sprawling campus and the surrounding community is home to nearly 50,000 students and employs more than 15,000 faculty and staff. As in any large community, crime does exist but the university has taken significant measures to help ensure the safety of our students, faculty and staff.”

The USF Police Department regularly patrol the campus in cars, on bicycles or on foot to ensure safety of students, faculty and staff. “Emergency scenarios have [also] been planned to allow expedient response if an emergency should arise,” adds Johnson.

In part, it is also up to the student to respond and notify the university of any situation that seems to call for assistance. Students should be quick to act. “Do not hesitate to contact the University Police or local law enforcement if you find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation where you feel your personal safety is threatened,” says Johnson. “We would rather you be mistaken than become a victim.”

The University of Michigan also takes a proactive approach to student safety and security. The Division of Public Safety and Security (DPSS) at the university offers a variety of services to its community, including a fully accredited police force. These include responding to emergency calls, providing event security and ride-alongs.

Blue light phones

Blue light phones have been an important security feature on many U.S. campuses for decades. These tall poles with blue lights at the top have emergency buttons or direct phones to the police department. The blue light phones are placed at strategic locations, so that students can make emergency calls during a crisis.

Universities across the country offer blue light phones, which differ in size and features. Most models include a speaker to communicate with the dispatcher but can include a camera or have a solar power function.

Essentially all blue light phones serve the same purpose—the red button is to be pressed in the case of an emergency, and the blue light on top will flash to help campus police find the person’s location.

Besides the blue light phone, the University of Michigan also has red box emergency phones or buttons located in elevators and parking spaces. These are directly connected to DPSS Dispatch Services. If anyone lifts the phone or pushes the button, dispatch services are automatically provided a location, and an officer is sent to the location.

An important safety feature at New York University is the green light on buildings located across campus. The light indicates that there is a safety officer present in the building 24 hours a day and that any student, faculty or staff member of the university community can take refuge in the building.

Campus safety services

University safety departments advise students to walk in groups or arrange a ride and not walk alone at night. Universities offer after-dark shuttles, services to escort students, and some institutions like USF offer monthly Uber vouchers in case a student needs a ride home after hours.

Another common feature at universities across the United States is safety apps for smartphones. The USF SAFE app is the university’s official safety app and provides quick access to emergency contacts, safety resources, interactive and searchable maps and location sharing.

Melissa Overton, deputy chief of police at the University of Michigan, says the DPSS too also developed a free app for Android and iOS devices. “With the U-M Public Safety, you can report a crime or concern, send us a tip about suspicious activity, request after-hours transport, receive push notifications for emergency alerts and view crime alerts,” she says.

The University of Michigan’s police department works closely with the university’s International Center to stay in touch with students, especially international students, about their safety, says Overton.

International students may be particularly keen to know how universities approach the subject of hate crimes. The DPSS encourages students to report hate crimes immediately. “In accordance with the U-M nondiscrimination policy, DPSS will uphold the constitutional rights of all individuals irrespective of their race, color, national origin, age, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, religion, height, weight or veteran status. Any crime designed to infringe upon these rights will be taken very seriously by the university and DPSS,” says the U-M DPSS website.

Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.


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