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Keeping Safe on the College Campus

In light of the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech, the safety and well being of their college students is first and foremost on many parents’ minds. And it’s more than just campus lock-downs and security. It’s a question of mental balance and well being. Here are a few tips excerpted from my most recent book, A Parents’ Guide to College Life.

How can I find out about crimes on campus?

According to the Clery Act, colleges and universities are required by law to file annual reports on campus crime. Schools must also make timely warnings to the campus community anytime something that poses a threat to the community happens. You can find a list of campus crimes at The Department of Education’s web site and visit Securityoncampus for good information.

What is the school’s notification system in the event of an emergency?

Some schools use email, some have students’ cell phone numbers, and some schools are even looking at using text messaging and Facebook as part of a campus alert system. Every campus should have an explicit notification system that students know about.

What can I observe on campus to let me know it’s a safe school?

Nothing in life guaranteed, but typically, on-campus private security guards, good campus lighting, a system of emergency call boxes, and video cameras on campus are all signs of a well-protected campus. Unfortunately dark, poorly lit areas may be romantic, but less safe.

Dorms that use electronic keys (which can be deactivated if a student is no longer on campus) are much safer than dorms with traditional keys. Traditional keys require changing the locks, something that seldom happens. Look for good window and door locks, too.

Does the school encourage a culture of partying?

Parents can pick up subtle clues. Look in the dumpsters. Are they filled with empty alcohol bottles? Look for bars in close proximity to campus. Do they advertise “2-for-1” or “finals week” specials? Check to see if the school has a policy about underage drinking and how it is enforced. Look at the lists of “party schools” generated by the college guidebooks to get an idea of the culture.

How prevalent are mental health issues on campus?

Unfortunately, studies suggest that more and more students are either on prescription drugs or suffering from depression or stress. Parents should ask about the campus’ programs and facilities, including things like time and stress management and activities to encourage other than solitary studying. Make sure you know the type of mental health services the college offers. If possible, meet the RA (resident advisor, typically an upper classperson who’s the students’ first line of contact in the event of problems).

Parents need to be in touch with their children often enough to recognize unusual or disturbing patterns. Sleeping all day for one day or saying that they’re depressed is not a problem. Sleeping every day and complaining of chronic stress and depression is. Use CampusBlues and ActiveMindsOnCampus as two good resources.

How common is rape on campus?

Research indicates that college students are more vulnerable to rape than any other age group. Parents should find out if the campus has programs in place to discuss how to stay safe from sexual assault. Parents can remind their students to go out in groups or to leave word with a roommate or friend when they go out on a date. Encourage them to go on first dates in public places, not to someone’s room. Check to see whether or not the campus has well-lit paths at night and whether there is some sort of escort service for getting back to their dorm after hours.

What are my rights as a parent?

Less than you would think. Because a student’s privacy needs to be protected many schools do not share students’ grades, medical issues, or sometimes even their transgressions with parents. Sometimes a school will notify a parent if there’s a repeated problem (the three strikes rule) and sometimes they will notify a parent if the child is in imminent danger or endangering their community. Find out what your school’s policy is towards keeping parents informed of problems.