Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

Securing Open College Campuses

securing college campuses


A couple years ago, a crime spree broke out on a large university campus during football season. It began on a Saturday during a football game, which tied up most of the university’s security resources. Thieves broke into a number of offices in one of the academic buildings, stealing laptops and other valuables.

Throughout the next three weeks, the thieves broke into many more buildings using an effective modus operandi. They dressed like students and entered their target building while it was open. Later, before the building closed for the day, they hid. Emerging after the doors were locked, they used carpentry tools to break into offices and make off with their loot.

After dozens of burglaries, they finally made a mistake. An administrative assistant discovered a bus pass on the floor of her office when she came to work on a Monday. When she noticed that her office had been robbed, she called security.

Using the bus pass, the campus police, who happened to be sworn officers, narrowed down the buses that might have carried the thieves to campus. They focused on one bus and matched the pass to a man appearing on camera video in front of the buildings that had been burglarized.

The detectives set up a surveillance detail in a building that hadn’t been burglarized — the thieves never hit the same building twice. Finally, on yet another game-day Saturday, a plainclothes officer watching a building heard what sounded like the rattle of burglar tools at an office door. He called the campus police, who nabbed the two burglars as they exited a set of the building’s fire doors.

They were charged and convicted of 40 burglaries and other thefts.

Today’s Open Campus

The spate of burglaries on that campus highlights what can and does happen on an open college or university campus. An open campus invites general public visitors as well as the campus community to come and go as they please from the property. Free to wander the campus, criminals can evaluate, make plans and commit crimes.

As a result of thefts and other campus criminal activities that have gone tragically beyond theft, college and university security directors are working on ideas to help make open campuses safer.

“Certainly parents have concerns for kids that attend residential colleges — not just for the quality of the education provided but also for the safety of the students,” says Tony Callisto, senior vice president and chief law enforcement officer in the Division of Campus Safety and Emergency Services at New York’s Syracuse University.

“As you think about what has occurred on college campuses over the past decade or so, the interest in campus security has been heightened,” continues Callisto. “The nature of the incidents has grown very serious — there was the mass shooting at Virginia Tech followed by other violent incidents. There is also the terrible problem of sexual assault on campus.

“All of this makes it important that campus security departments provide resources and services and educate university communities about using those services.”

securing college campuses


LIVE AND LEARN… AND LIVE. In his work as public safety director at Chemeketa Community College in Oregon, Bill Kohlmeyer, left, with a campus officer, is continually reviewing information on safety, access control and other aspects of security and then making improvements to Chemeketa’s campus. By studying the experiences of and reports from other institutions and experts, Kohlmeyer is confident that he is doing all he can to keep Chemeketa’s students, faculty, staff and visitors safe.

Planning Security

Open campuses attract pedestrian traffic and vehicle traffic from off campus, making it difficult to set up and control anything close to a secure perimeter.

“Access control is difficult on an open campus,” says Paul Timm, physical security consultant for RETA Security, Inc. “We want a good perimeter, but it isn’t easy. People can walk in and cars can drive in at any time. From a security point of view, it would be good to account for vehicles and people, and everyone is trying to do a better job of that.”

Timm goes on to describe the general security measures taken on most campuses. More and more, residence halls are locked all the time. Residents must card in with authorized, validated credentials. The same holds true with dining facilities.

The academic buildings remain unlocked, continues Timm.

“In K–12 schools, teachers and students practice lockdowns,” Timm notes. “But in higher educational facilities, they generally don’t even have fire drills, let alone active shooter drills. There is some drilling, but colleges and universities are generally behind K–12 in preparing for these kinds of emergencies.”

Timm and other campus security professionals also focus on educating the campus community. Timm offers courses in several areas:

  • Designing access control systems.
  • Natural surveillance — campus architecture that provides clear, unobstructed sightlines. Criminals don’t like environments where they can be seen easily.
  • Maintenance — experience shows that well maintained, well-kept campuses suffer less crime.
  • Border definition — Defined perimeters help discourage crime by making it clear when you cross onto a particular property. On a campus, a stone wall, iron fence or low-slung shrubbery can define a perimeter.

Get the Word Out

Bill Kohlmeyer, public safety director at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, OR, also focuses on educating his campus community about security.

“The courses are designed for unarmed, untrained civilians,” he says. “One course, for instance, talks about how might you survive an active shooter. I hold classes as often as once a week for anyone that wants to come. We recently began getting requests from people and businesses in the community.”

Kohlmeyer recently changed out all of the door locks on campus. The old locks required a key to lock and unlock the doors — from the outside. “There was no way to lock the doors from the inside,” Kohlmeyer says. “These are the kind of locks that many schools still have.”

The new locks can be locked quickly from the inside.

“We’ve also modified double doors leading to the outside,” continues Kohlmeyer. “Seung-Hui Cho chained the two-fold handles on double doors to keep the police out of the building while keeping the victims in.

“We studied the way people use these kinds of doors and found that people almost always go out of a building through the righthand side. So we’ve taken the left-side fold-handle off. It doesn’t affect exiting, but no one can chain the doors shut.”

Kohlmeyer also studied how people under life-or-death stress react and imagined what he might do to help them survive. For instance, he found the people under severe stress often couldn’t remember their address when calling 911.

The Chemeketa campus spans 200 acres and 63 buildings. Together those buildings enclose hundreds of individual rooms.

“I started thinking about people hiding inside those rooms during an attack,” Kohlmeyer says. “I wanted to make it easy for them to call for help. So we installed signs inside every room above the door. The signs have the building number and room number. When students call for help from any room, all they have to do is read the sign.”

Kohlmeyer also printed the building number and room number of each room on outfacing windows to make it easier for first responders to find their way around the buildings.

Emergency Notification

Kohlmeyer has installed two mass notification systems at Chemeketa: an IP-based phone system with speakers on all of the phones along with large speakers in common areas. “We can broadcast to a room, a building, a group of buildings and the whole campus,” he says.

The second emergency notification system sends messages by text, phone message, email and all of the above.

Is there an advantage to having two mass notification systems? “Yes,” says Kohlmeyer. “Both systems warn people on campus. The emergency messaging system can also warn people that are off campus to stay away.

“We also use the text messaging system to notify people of weather delays and other emergencies — but we only use it for emergencies.”

Finally, Kohlmeyer’s department employs uniformed, unarmed security officers that monitor the campus 24 hours a day.

All in all, college campuses appear to be growing safer and more secure. Thanks to the creativity and innovativeness of today’s college and university security professionals, the additional security is becoming available without sacrificing the easy, comfortable and fun campus experience that everyone who remembers his or her college days treasures and wants for today’s students.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .