Appropriate Roles for Student Workers

I was recently told by a student who is a resident advisor (R.A.) that she had been instructed to investigate complaints of illegal alcohol and drug use and possession in her residence hall before contacting university police. She had been directed to go to residence rooms when complaints were received and to try to use a ruse to look in the room to see if she could see drugs or alcohol present or in use. The practice is apparently a policy at this large state university and is formally taught to resident advisors. Standard practice for the university police is to dispatch officers to the scene if they are called.

This means there is a disconnect between residence life and the university police. It also indicates that untrained civilians who apparently have little understanding of the significant danger of illegal drug and alcohol activity have developed procedures for others to follow. As a cop for two decades, I am deeply concerned with this practice for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, the potential danger that could be encountered by students who are being asked to perform what should be a law enforcement function.

When I was a university police investigator, I worked a case where a R.A. was forced into a residence hall room and sexually humiliated by drunken students while investigating an alcohol complaint. This incident resulted in felony convictions, trauma for the victim, and significant negative publicity for the university. Related to the more recent example cited above, at least one student attending this university a couple of years ago was involved with the Russian Mafia and was selling large amounts of cocaine on campus. As just one example, this current practice could easily result in a student stumbling upon a situation a bit more serious than a college kid with a six-pack of beer or a bag of marijuana in his or her room.

In another instance, a student worker employed by a university police department stole corporate calling card numbers and distributed them to her friends, which resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in unlawful telephone calls. She was able to do this because she was inappropriately given access to information. The same university police department arrested a student on an outstanding warrant from an agency in another community. The student had stolen numerous automobiles, guns, and other items — and had run theft rings at three different colleges and universities — before being arrested. The same student admitted that he had applied for a job as a student worker in an effort to penetrate the university police department, so he would not be caught. Fortunately, the department had opted not to hire him, and he was arrested after stealing only one automobile on their campus.

Another important consideration is the proper training of student workers who might be required to implement emergency procedures. While conducting a training session on how to conduct tactical site surveys at a large state university, our group entered a library. No full-time university staff members were on duty in the library at the time we arrived. When we asked the student workers what they would do if they observed a gunman on campus or if they suddenly became aware of a serious hazardous materials incident outside the building, all of them replied that they had no idea what to do, and they had never been issued any instructions or plan components for emergencies. This means that hundreds of students in the library could be needlessly exposed to danger because a major facility had been left in the hands of student workers who had not been properly prepared to implement life-saving functional protocols. If a major incident occurred and the students had to contact university police for instructions, significant loss of human life could occur. The students told us it was not unusual for staff to be absent for brief periods of time several times each day.

While these issues can be difficult to address, they should not be ignored. A heavy dose of common sense, moral responsibility, and an awareness of appropriate risk management concepts should be applied to these situations.

Campus officials should give careful consideration to the roles assigned to students. While hundreds of thousands of student workers perform invaluable functions at their colleges and universities every day, it is important to work towards appropriate balance. Access to information, valuable equipment, and potential danger that students could face should be considered. And of course, the ability of student workers to implement emergency procedures should all be carefully considered and properly addressed by training and job descriptions. Take the time to review student employee roles and responsibilities in your organization, and you might head off significant problems.

Michael Dorn
serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, non-profit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens Website at

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at