How to Stay Safe on a College Campus

By: Sarah Wood

No matter whether a school is gated or dispersed throughout a city with no visual boundaries, students should take safety precautions and use common sense when walking on and off campus.

Just like anywhere else in a city or town, crimes can occur on a college campus. And no matter whether a school is gated or dispersed throughout a city with no visual boundaries, students should take safety precautions and use common sense when walking on and off campus, especially at night.

“Trust your instincts,” says Tara Hurless, a detective in the University of Illinois Police Department’s Community Outreach and Support Team. “If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. And you may not be able to put your finger on what exactly it is.”

Here are six tips on ways to stay safe in a college setting:

  • Avoid walking alone at night.
  • Lock doors and secure belongings.
  • Pay attention to residence hall visitors.
  • Have a plan when going out.
  • Be aware of available of campus safety services.
  • Report suspicious activity.

Avoid Walking Alone at Night

Whether it’s after a class, a late night of studying or a visit with friends, experts advise students to practice the so-called buddy system and find another student or a group to walk with at night. When that’s not possible, students can use school-offered escort services and shuttles like “SafeRides” or “SafeWalks,” rideshare options or public transportation.

Other safety measures students can take are sending a trusted friend, roommate or family member their location; not wearing headphones or being distracted by a cellphone; walking in well-lit areas and avoiding empty parking lots.

“Some kids will FaceTime when they are walking home late at night (in case) something happens,” Hurless says. “That’s OK if you do that, but make sure you are looking around where you are at and not just having your head down, focused on the phone.”

Lock Doors and Secure Belongings

Students should get in the habit of locking the doors to their car, dorm room, apartment or house – especially before going to bed. To prevent theft, don’t leave belongings inside a vehicle or out in the open, avoid propping open doors, close all garage doors and set alarms.

“I think anywhere, property crime is always more prevalent than actual physical harm to anyone no matter where they are,” says James Mendonca, chief of campus police and director of security and safety at Rhode Island College. “We can’t prevent crimes from occurring, but we can do things to mitigate.”

Pay Attention to Residence Hall Visitors

Most dorms are secured and require key card access. Out of habit, many students may hold the door for the person behind them – which experts advise against even if denying someone entry seems rude.

And if someone exhibiting suspicious behavior enters a residence hall, it’s important to alert staff or campus police.

“Be aware of your surroundings,” says John Milby, chief of police at Furman University in South Carolina. Don’t let “somebody in your apartment if you don’t know who they are or trust them. That goes for on campus or off campus.”

Have a Plan When Going Out

Parties often happen on college campuses – and students who choose to attend should do so safely and legally, experts say. So before going out to a gathering, come up with a plan on how to get home at the end of the night.

Additionally, don’t leave your drinks unattended and be sure to leave with the people you came with.

“Remember bystander intervention,” says Thurmond Maynard, director and chief of campus safety at Hood College in Maryland. “Stepping in if (you) see something strange, somebody approaching someone, things becoming aggressive or some type of situation along those lines.”

Be Aware of Available Campus Safety Services

Available support services vary, but most schools have blue lights spread across campus that, when pressed, alert officers to an emergency. Schools typically also have campus security patrols and emergency notification systems to inform the community of potential incidents nearby.

Many colleges offer educational programming and training sessions during freshman orientation and throughout the year to discuss safety topics such as bystander intervention, consent, sexual assault, dating violence and active shooter situations.

Other campus resources include Title IX offices and counseling services. The University of Illinois, for instance, has a program in which social workers are paired with behavioral health officers and therapy dogs to respond to mental health crisis calls.

“Sometimes people don’t feel comfortable talking to officers, so having that social worker as a resource shows that we’re not just about writing tickets and taking people to jail,” Hurless says. “It is really about making a difference in that student’s life who might be in a bigger crisis than they ever thought they would be in.”

Report Suspicious Activity

As the saying goes, “If you see something, say something.” Experts strongly encourage students to report suspicious behavior or unsafe activities, such as someone leaving bags or packages unattended or a vehicle driving slowly around campus. Campus safety apps often have the option to report anonymously.

And if someone is following you, go directly to the police department, campus security or a safe space.

“I’m surprised how often students will find out three days after the fact that they witnessed something that was really unsafe or suspicious,” Milby says. “And they may not report it at all, or they’re slow in reporting it, which puts law enforcement at a disadvantage.”