Jonathan Plucker’s Tips on How to Succeed in College #8: Be Proactive About Safety

You’d like another haiku about college life? Why, sure, here you go:

You can prevent most

bad things; but if the worst

happens, get help.

The Reality of Campus Safety

Most college campuses are very safe places if you take some reasonable precautions. For example, no matter who you are or where you’re going to school, walking home by yourself at 3:00 a.m. (from the library, let’s assume) is not smart. Will something bad happen to you if you do it? Not likely, but why roll the dice? If you don’t lock your door when you leave for class, will your stuff be gone when you return? Again, the odds are that everything will be there when you get back … or maybe not.

Be prudent about safety.

I once received a mass email in which a faculty member excitedly warned everyone that someone was breaking into cars in a central parking lot on campus, and that he himself had had money stolen from his car that very day. I thought, “How on earth did someone break into cars in the heart of campus during the middle of the day?” I scrolled down through the email and read an important detail: The victim had left his windows wide open, the doors unlocked, and money out in the open. Of course, he should not have been burgled, but there were easy steps he could have taken to guarantee the safety of his belongings.

Physical safety on campus is obviously a bigger deal than property safety, but the same basic rules apply – take precautions, like relying on campus transportation, traveling in groups, and using apps like Companion if walking home alone is unavoidable. These steps are likely to prevent the worst-case scenario and further reduce the chance that something bad happens to you or your friends.

Use a buddy system.

Sharing real-life examples here is as tricky as they are uncommon, and I don’t want to overshare details about the very few bad cases I’ve observed. But one that sticks in my mind happened a number of years ago. I used to teach a course for first-year students each fall, and I would always give my standard please-go-out-with-a-buddy talk if they were heading out during their first weekend of the semester. In many years of teaching that course, I only had one student who was a victim during that initial weekend.

I’ll never forget the head of my program pulling me aside right before Monday’s class, informing me that a student had been assaulted and was in the hospital. After asking about her condition, which was stable and quickly improving, I asked where her buddies were when the assault happened. Apparently, they left her behind at a party where she knew no one.

I would argue that they were not “buddies” in either the figurative or literal senses of the word, and that she would clearly have been safer if her friends hadn’t abandoned her.

Of course, neither these “buddies” nor my student were responsible for the assault itself, but buddy systems only work if students stick to them. It does no one any good to make an arrangement with friends only to drop them when there’s something enticing to do elsewhere.

Stick to your buddy plan.

Sexual violence on campuses is in the news right now, as it should be — the stats are alarming. As the father of a young woman who will soon be heading to college, I’d be lying if I said I’m not nervous. On the plus side, universities are taking the epidemic of sexual assault (which happens to men too, though less frequently) very seriously. We can debate at length why enough attention wasn’t being paid to the issue before, but the fact of the matter is that many schools are focusing tremendous effort on fighting this scourge. On the downside, far too many students are still being victimized.

I have no great strategies here from a personal safety perspective, other than the aforementioned buddy system. If you’re going out for a night on the town, find one (or, preferably, more than one) friend whom you completely trust, come up with a game plan for how you’re going to approach the evening, then stick with your plan and your buddy. I realized halfway through my senior year that I had a much better time as my group’s designated driver (with all the free soft drinks that usually entails) than I did as one of the drinkers!

You can get help.

If something bad does take place, all campuses have services that can help you through the situation. Your professors will know how to get or find help for you, as will supervisors in your dorm. Many of us have a tendency to remain silent if we are a victim — but please, please, please don’t be silent in the uncommon instance that something bad has happened to you. Being proactive will significantly increase your overall safety level, but if you are a victim, consider contacting the campus victim’s advocate office or your school’s health or counseling center to get care and talk about your options for reporting.

Takeaways:

  • Use prudent strategies to protect yourself, your friends, and your property.

  • If your campus has a student escort service to accompany people at night, put the contact information in your bag, on your phone, and in your purse or wallet.

  • Have a good, reliable buddy system.

  • If a situation feels wrong, it probably is. Trust your instincts and act accordingly. That goes for bystanders, too: If something looks off, it’s usually better to get involved than sit on the sidelines.

  • Dial 911 if you see something suspicious. Again, if your spider-sense is tingling, trust it and make the call. If you don’t call and something bad happens, you’ll have more than a few sleepless nights. If you call and you’re wrong, who cares? If you call and you’re right, you’re a hero. Human nature is not to make the call, but push yourself to be a potential hero. You really have nothing to lose.

Parents can learn more about questions to ask college administrators by reading Campus Sexual Assault Prevention: A Parent’s Guide.

Read Jonathan Plucker's introductory article on How to Succeed in College, as well as his two most recent posts, Make Every Obstacle an Opportunity and Change Is Coming. You can also check out new installments each weekday through January 15, 2016.

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