Improving Residence Hall Security

Residence hall access control systems, surveillance camera capabilities, and other security technologies relating to residential security have improved markedly over the last two decades. Many colleges and universities have overhauled residence hall security approaches in recent years, and more will do so in the future. One concept for residence hall security that was valid several decades ago and is still very important consists of efforts to raise the awareness level of the students who occupy campus housing.

While colleges and universities implement improved building design concepts, top-flight security camera systems, and truly amazing access control technologies, it is equally important to improve the awareness of students as a means to create the human support needed to maximize the effectiveness of these technologies. Campus officials have often found this to be among the most challenging aspects of campus security, due to the attitudes of many students. They also face many challenges in how they attempt to heighten awareness without causing undue fear or perceptions that these efforts may harm the institution’s image.

Addressing the Human Side

Fortunately, new technology and improved approaches can also help higher education officials address the human side of residence hall security more effectively. Dynamic instructor training programs for students can be developed, where students can be trained to teach other students how to help improve residence hall and personal safety. This approach has already proven to be effective for resident advisors and could be just as effective for all resident, as well as commuter, students. Custom training videos have proven to be extremely effective in numerous K–12 school systems and can be streamed online for viewing by students at institutions of higher learning. This approach is among the least expensive, and can also provide superior documentation from a liability standpoint. Another increasingly popular method involves Web-based training programs. Though more expensive than custom video training, this approach does provide a higher degree of interactivity and can afford some improved documentation through test-out features, if desired. Both video and Web-delivered safety information can be designed to be accessible to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The importance of social marketing is greater now that we have capable technology options that did not previously exist. These technology solutions can often increase residential hall security significantly when students buy into the need for them. 

As with other types of campus facilities, the best time to implement new security technologies, systems, and even strategies can be the new construction or renovation of residence halls. As it is usually easier to incorporate a new prox card or camera system during this phase, it can also be easier to get students to follow new entry and visitor registry procedures with a new facility or re-opening of a renovated one. Involving campus security and police personnel, residence life staff, facilities personnel, resident advisors, and students in the planning process can also help to improve the quality of the security approach for a construction project for student housing.

Identifying Pitfalls
One reason we emphasize the importance of the people in residence hall security is the ease with which security experts have been able to defeat even some of the most high-tech access control systems. While we do believe that security cameras and access control systems are invaluable tools when used properly, our analysts have never been “caught” simulating crimes by anyone watching a security camera monitor during a red team assessment. Considering the thousands of simulated crimes we have “committed” and the number of times we have been “caught” by alert students and staff, our analysts are convinced that any technology solution is only as good as the people who support it, be they employees or students. Even more persuasive evidence comes from the many actual incidents where real criminals have committed actual crimes in spite of good security technology that was not properly supported.

Many of these gaps and pitfalls experienced in residence hall security are at least partly due to improper integration of stakeholders into the design and/or policy processes, as well as through informational and training initiatives. Though committee approaches can become frustrating and are always initially time consuming, they can also save a lot of heartache. As the potential outcomes for a hasty planning approach to residence hall security can be a range of unpleasant experiences such as a perpetually ineffective, difficult to use, or downright dangerous situation, it pays to take the time to make sure the approach used is people-centered rather than technology-focused. Of course the potential for litigation, loss of stature for the institution, and, most of all, the suffering of even a single victim make a serious effort to create and maintain good residence hall security a must.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit 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