Colleges are recognized as institutions that offer open, accessible campuses. Aside from staff, faculty, and enrolled students, there are numerous visitors to campuses and events, as well as service providers and delivery professionals. Considering the size of some campuses as well as their geographical location, ensuring safety is a challenge for administrators. Today’s common risks include theft, vandalism and property damage, violence, and weapons-related incidents.
After the dramatic incidents at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois College, the University of Southern California Santa Barbara, and more recently Michigan State University, protecting students and staff on college campuses not only is a top priority among higher education administrators, but it is an urgent priority.
Physical security is only part of the issue. After the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, cybersecurity became vital with the increase in remote learning. Now personal data, financial data, research data, grades, and more are included in immense volumes of valuable data stored by colleges. Protecting information from data breaches is now equally critical to security strategies.
Traditional security tools such as CCTV, radio communications, and alarm systems have been around for some time, but colleges and universities, with large distances to cover, are increasingly integrating advanced technology to increase protection.
One widely used safety tool is the personal safety app. These apps can be used by teachers, staff, students, and security teams. Members of the university community download the app, and when in need can quickly call security personnel for assistance.
In situations of peril, such as a fire, chemical or gas leak, shooting, or terrorism, university officials can use the app to alert students in real-time. If an incident takes place, students and staff receive an alert on their mobile device or smartphone informing them of what is happening, where, and any areas that should be avoided.
Some apps may even offer greater geographic information alerting students and staff if an accident, rally, protest, crime, or something other is occurring in areas surrounding the campus perimeter. Other features may include a “call for help” button, GPS location identification, mass communications, monitoring, and audio/video recording, to mitigate numerous safety risks regardless of the time or activity the user is involved in. Information can be securely stored on cloud-based servers to be used later as an investigative tool.
Apps have a further advantage in that some allow students to report suspicious activity anonymously. While technology is a powerful tool, nothing substitutes the human observer. Yet many people prefer not to become personally involved. Apps that allow reporting anonymously remove this issue and encourage reporting or some schools provide anonymous tip lines as an alternative.
Access Control Systems
While electronic access control systems are relatively common, using campus-wide access control systems that are interconnected is more challenging. Unified systems permit optimization by facilitating the updating of software, improved monitoring, and alarm alerts. Physical access control systems permit integrated visitor management together with other services using mobile digital credentials and biometrics for more secure streamlined access.
These types of credentials prevent the risk of lost, shared, or stolen cards being used by bad actors. Biometrics use specific physical characteristics of the authorized person. Digital credentials can be easily enabled or revoked within seconds as well as awarded for limited use. Texas A&M University uses its visitor management system to furnish emergency responders with special access when needed.
Access control systems connected with smart locks permit security personnel to lock specific areas or trigger lockdowns quickly should a necessity arise. The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor began installing smart locks in classrooms and laboratories in 2019, and many other universities are following suit and utilizing school security grants to make their premises safer.
Security Video Viewing and Artificial Intelligence
CCTV and schools cameras are basic components of security strategies, but things have changed. Now video feeds offer improved images, can be consulted remotely, and can be integrated with Artificial Intelligence aiding security personnel in identifying and addressing threats and risks proactively.
AI can be used to identify weapons, intrusions, suspicious behavior, loitering, and more through continuous analysis in real time 24/7. AI then triggers alerts to authorities and security teams.
Surveillance strategies also enable solving crimes through stored video feeds. Virginia Commonwealth University developed a scalable, flexible video system using an IP approach across its campus. Video feed has been used in the past as an investigative tool in solving numerous robberies.
Texas A&M University, unable to install video surveillance on its 5,200-acre campus, due to budget limitations, prioritized areas with higher risks such as parking garages, or laboratories with toxic materials. The live feed can be accessed 24/7 by authorities and is stored for later use.
Although this may seem like a given, on-campus lighting can make quite a difference when it comes to security. When an area is not illuminated well, there is an increased probability of crimes. Some universities may have naturally dark areas both indoors and outside due to older architecture.
Darkened zones attract assaults, robberies, and even vandalism because there is a lower possibility that a crime will be witnessed. Good lighting increases feelings of safety as well as acting as a deterrent. Motion detectors used in smart lighting can aid in reducing energy consumption by turning lights on only when someone is in the area.
A well-trained security patrol is priceless in the event of an emergency and a visible security presence on campus not only increases feelings of safety but acts as a crime deterrent. Security patrols also can interact with the community they are serving and recognize potential security threats and intervene proactively.
Communications are one of the strongest tools that colleges possess. When incidents occur, informing the student body and faculty can encourage more vigilance and rather than inducing fear demonstrate that potentially threatening issues are being monitored. E-mails, messages, and app alerts can all contribute to providing more information to people at the university including safety updates and recommendations. The University of Chicago is just one of many colleges and universities that issues security alerts when warranted.
With open college campuses where hundreds if not thousands of people move about freely every day, there are numerous opportunities for criminal behavior. Depending on the campus and geographical location, security strategies will vary, but colleges and universities across the nation are prioritizing security and stepping up to the safety challenge.