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article / August 15, 2023

Campus safety and security: a comprehensive guide

An aerial shot of The University of Utah with students roaming the grounds.

From non-sworn security to campus police agencies and beyond, here’s how colleges keep students and staff safe

When incoming freshmen and their families evaluate colleges and universities, they’ll probably consider the types of curriculums offered, the school’s reputation, and the location of the campus – but safety measures should also be a serious concern. According to stats compiled by Axon, there were 27,300 crimes reported on postsecondary education campuses over the course of 2019 and 2020; that works out to about 19 crimes per 10,000 students. These campuses can be thousands or tens of thousands of acres, and keeping that area safe is no small feat.

The good news for students is that there are a number of ways these institutions of higher learning are working to deter crime and minimize harmful incidents. On-campus security services and police agencies are ubiquitous in these environments, but they’re not the only precautions university leadership should take. Administrators must have a thorough understanding of the current state of campus safety and security in order to ensure they’re doing everything in their power to provide a safe environment for students, professors, and staff.

Understanding the Clery Act’s role in campus safety

In 1986, Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Clery was murdered in her dorm room. Her parents subsequently discovered that not only did the dorm have lax security standards, but there was a history of crime on campus that had gone unreported. Clery’s murder was only one of the dozens of violent crimes that had occurred at Lehigh in the three years preceding her death, a statistic that had never been released to the public.

In the wake of this horrific event, Clery’s parents became activists, lobbying Congress to require any universities receiving government funds to report on-campus crime. As a result, the Clery Act was passed in 1990. Since then, it has played a prominent role in a number of high-profile legal cases, most notably the Penn State child sex abuse scandal.

In its simplest terms, the Clery Act requires university administrators to disperse “timely warnings” and emergency notifications any time a “serious or ongoing threat to the campus community” occurs. These threats may be on campus, on public property within or adjacent to campus, or in non-campus buildings frequented by students and affiliated organizations. Additionally, these institutions must also be transparent about their campus security policies and procedures and make this information available to all current and prospective students, as well as faculty and staff. Crimes that require reporting include:

  • Murder and manslaughter

  • Sexual assault

  • Aggravated assault

  • Robbery and burglary

  • Motor vehicle theft

  • Arson

  • Hate crimes

Non-compliance with the Clery Act can result in hefty fines for these universities. The Department of Education can issue civil fines of up to $35,000, while criminal negligence carries a much higher price tag. In the case of Penn State, the university was fined $2.4 million, the highest Clery Act fine levied to date.

To learn more about the Clery Act, read our thorough overview – The Clery Act: a comprehensive guide.

Campus security vs. campus police: What’s the difference?

In the three decades since the passage of the Clery Act, colleges and universities have taken campus safety much more seriously. This has led to an increased presence of law enforcement officers and security personnel, but it’s important to note that while these departments have common goals, they’re separate entities.

Campus police overview

If you’re wondering “Are campus police real police officers?”, the answer is a resounding yes. Campus police are sworn officers that have the same powers to enforce federal, state, and local laws as any other law enforcement official; they simply operate in more limited jurisdictions (an isolated campus as opposed to an entire city). Here are a few other key differences between campus police and other officers:

  • Flexible discipline options: Unlike municipality officers, who have to follow strict procedures when reporting incidents, campus police may choose to report minor incidents to the Dean of Students rather than pursue legal action.

  • Greater focus on prevention: Stopping crime is good, but preventing it is better. Campus police often hold workshops and self-defense classes to give students the best chance of protecting themselves, as well as providing safety patrols for students taking classes at night.

  • Compliance training: In order to comply with the Clery Act, campus police officers receive special training that covers reporting procedures as outlined by the law. These law enforcement officials must also understand the regulations outlined by Title IX, HIPAA, and FERPA.

  • Emergency management: Because they’re based on university grounds, campus police are likely to reach the scene of an emergency before medical personnel, making them first responders in their own right.

Because of these distinctions between municipal and campus police, the training and qualifications required for aspiring campus officers are fairly stringent. Campus police officers often begin their careers at the same institutions they’ll come to protect; a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement, law, criminal justice, or other related fields is highly recommended. Applicants must then submit to a background check, undergo psychological and physical evaluations and pass a drug test.

Once on the job, there’s a rigorous, months-long campus safety training period, which includes both physical and academic training. Along the way, applicants will need to learn first aid, de-escalation tactics, and how to use various forms of technology associated with the job.

To learn more about the role of campus police, read What campus police are and are not: 7 important distinctions and How to become a campus police officer.

Campus security overview

Unlike police officers, campus security guards are non-sworn personnel, but they still have an important role to play in campus safety. Sometimes referred to as “peacekeeping officers,” campus security personnel typically carry only de-escalation tools like TASER energy weapons and body-worn cameras. Like sworn personnel, these security experts are campus employees and must complete extensive compliance training for the Clery Act, Title IX, HIPAA, and FERPA.

Security officers often act as intermediaries between the student body and local law enforcement, particularly if an incident occurs off-campus and outside of the campus agency’s jurisdiction. Campus security services employ a number of violence prevention strategies, among them:

  • Risk assessment: Security officers typically conduct regular risk assessments throughout campus, and are especially vigilant before big events like graduations or orientations. These risk assessments are followed by a campus security report outlining any potential threats and plans to resolve them.

  • Clear chain of command: Every campus security policy should detail a clear chain of command in order to avoid confusion during threats and emergencies. This ensures that all non-sworn security personnel are aware of the proper reporting procedures and resources that need to be shared with students.

  • Community workshops: Campus security officers will often host workshops focused on campus safety and security. This includes self-defense classes and events that build awareness about best practices for campus safety.

  • Threat identification and response: Since campus security officers are often the first to arrive at the scene of an incident, they need to be able to respond appropriately while also minimizing the use of force. Technology like body-worn cameras helps security professionals document these events, making investigations easier to manage.

For more information about how security teams serve college campuses, check out The role of campus security in violence prevention.

Additional safety measures to consider

Blue emergency phones

In a time before smartphones were everywhere, blue emergency phones were installed on college campuses to give students a way to contact law enforcement in the event of an emergency. Like many other campus safety policies, the increased use of blue emergency phones was a direct result of the Clery Act of 1990. Since then, nearly every four-year college that receives government aid has installed emergency blue light phones on campus, with wireless technology, solar panels and live video among the more modern features of these devices.

Blue emergency phones are designed to immediately connect the caller with emergency services, whether that’s the campus police station, security headquarters, or the Department of Public Safety. These phones are typically equipped with a blue light (hence the name “blue emergency phones” and “emergency blue light phones”) that makes them easy to spot from a distance, even late at night. They also allow responders to immediately pinpoint the caller’s location.

According to UC Irvine’s guidelines, these are the core scenarios in which students and faculty should use blue emergency phones:

  • Fire emergencies

  • Crimes in progress

  • Medical emergencies

  • Accidents

  • Reporting suspicious behavior or activity

Naturally, the prominence of cellular phones has raised the question of whether or not blue emergency phones are still needed on campus, and the answer is yes – provided they’re part of a comprehensive safety plan. While mobile phones are portable and convenient, they can’t help in areas without reception or if they’re low on power, and tracking the location of a smartphone typically takes longer than pinpointing a call coming from a blue emergency phone. According to data collected by the University of Delaware, 90% of students said that the presence of these emergency phones makes them feel safer, showing that they still have a place in the modern campus safety landscape.

Want to know more about how blue emergency phones help deter crime and keep campuses safe? Read Blue emergency phones: what they're for and how they help.

Modern technology solutions

Sworn and non-sworn campus safety personnel are extensively trained, but they still need the right tools to perform at optimal levels. Axon equips campus safety agencies with the technology they need to de-escalate potentially violent situations and increase transparency. This includes TASER energy weapons, body-worn cameras like the Axon Body 4 and our comprehensive Axon Air end-to-end drone solution, along with VR training and Clery Act-compliant software.

Want to know more about how Axon helps administrators protect their campuses with confidence? Get in touch.