By: Jessica Mertz, Executive Director of Clery Center
As children grow up, they usually learn about safety from parents, loved ones, and friends, constantly telling them things like don’t talk to strangers, don’t post personal information on social media, don’t get into a car with someone who has been drinking, etc. And for parents, safety fears for your child never end and can be triggered by the latest warning in your local Facebook group or an unimaginable tragedy making national headlines. However, this combination rarely builds a foundation for the personal, more nuanced conversations parents should have with their children about safety while they are away at school.
A recent College Safety Survey conducted by Clery Center and ADT found that 82% of college students are concerned about their personal safety as they return to school this fall and 97% consider their personal safety while on campus, yet only 70% have talked to their family about ways to be safe while attending school. This demonstrates that if you have a college student in your life, safety isn’t just a topic you have a responsibility to raise, it’s one students want to talk more about. With the additional stressors of COVID-19 related health concerns, and the reality that many students are beginning or returning to college after over a year of online learning, there is likely increased uncertainty about how to navigate a new environment.
As you approach this important topic, try to avoid making assumptions about what safety concerns the student has or those you think they should have. Instead, ask questions like: “Are you worried about your personal safety when you go to school?” Or, “What do you think will be different on campus than it has been for you at home?”. Create an open dialogue so they know their perspective is important. You can also share some practical, easy to follow, safety tips that empower them rather than scare them. ADT and Clery Center have compiled tips to help you provide useful advice to students, like recommending they always carry essential items like a phone, ID, and medical cards, knowing how to recognize an unhealthy relationship, and familiarizing themselves with their campus and surrounding areas.
Conversations about personal safety should happen throughout a student’s school journey, not just as a pre-college warning. In fact, the College Safety Survey found that concerns about safety were consistent regardless of whether they were a first-year or a fourth-year student. While students will hopefully grow more familiar with and comfortable on their campus, they may also become more aware of harmful behaviors and crimes through their lived experiences and have much different concerns than they did as freshmen.
Institutions of higher education have taken greater responsibility for student safety over the past 30 years, and college students’ rights and access to resources have improved thanks to federal laws like the Clery Act. The Clery Act requires colleges and universities that receive federal funding to disseminate a public Annual Security Report which includes crime statistics for the preceding three years, plus details about which efforts are taken to improve campus safety, like prevention programs.
While 74% of students surveyed said they trust their institution to provide a supportive response if they experience a harmful or dangerous situation, students reported that they are most likely to call a family member or a friend if they feel unsafe. So even if you are far away, your role is still an important one. If they do reach out for support, respond with empathy and avoid questions that may imply judgment or blame for their actions.
Remember, the toughest conversations to have are often the most important ones. The relationship you have built with the student in your life, and your consistency in showing you care, is likely to be the thing that makes them feel safest of all.
Clery Center Tips for Student Safety:
- Familiarity is Key: Start familiarizing yourself with your new campus, like identifying key buildings such as the health center or campus police, and surroundings areas, such as where the nearest hospital is or areas where crimes are more common. Once on campus, parents can help students by doing a dry run of how to get to buildings they will frequent and learning about other means of transportation like campus shuttles or the local subway system.
- Carry the Essentials: You will likely always have your phone with you but it’s important to have an In Case of Emergency or ICE contact clearly labeled. Check your phone’s settings, too, ensure that this information can be accessed even if your phone is locked. Always carry your student ID, government ID and any medical cards.
- Get to Know Your School: Each institution publishes an annual security report (ASR) that provides information about campus safety, like where to report a crime, rights and options afforded to victims of dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, plus campus crime statistics for the previous three calendar years. Reviewing this information along with bias incident policies, amnesty policies and reporting policies is essential. Look at what kind of law enforcement is present on your campus to better understand how you may interact with them. For example, some institutions have sworn and/or armed law enforcement with arrest authority, while others work with local police.
- Create a Safety Plan: Families or trusted adults can play an important role in helping you safely prepare for campus life by working with you to create a safety plan. Loved ones should start by talking with students about their specific worries and validating their feelings and concerns and then thinking through a plan of action for each event. These conversations can center on who to call for help and support, when it’s right to escalate to emergency services, and how to find safe shelter. Look for bystander intervention programs that teach strategies for addressing concerning behaviors on campus. These safety plans are great to establish with friends, too, to encourage an open dialogue around safety.
- Know How to Recognize an Unhealthy Relationship: There has always been education around stranger danger, but in the case of incidents like hazing, dating violence, and sexual assault, the person causing harm is often someone the person knows and likely even trusts. Knowing how to identify abusive behaviors can help students stay safe. Warning signs include controlling behavior, jealousy, manipulation, isolation, belittling, guilting and volatility. Understanding and recognizing these signs can be key to interpreting your relationships, whether with a partner or friend.
- Be an Active Bystander: Creating a safer campus needs to involve everyone who is a part of it. Attend programs to learn strategies for how to speak out against concerning behaviors and how to support a friend who is being harmed. Most schools have amnesty policies, which encourages students to seek help in dangerous situations without fear of getting in trouble for other policy violations like alcohol use.
About the author: Jessica Mertz is the Executive Director of Clery Center, a national nonprofit that works with institutions of higher education to improve their campus safety practices. Jessica was the founding Director of Penn Violence Prevention at the University of Pennsylvania and has served in various roles helping communities prevent and respond to interpersonal violence.
 Engine Insights survey of 1,002 college students identified from a demographically representative sample of the U.S. population, conducted in September 2021.