A 21st Century Approach to Campus Safety and Security

A 21st Century Approach to Campus Safety and Security

Safety and security must be front of mind for university and college administrators. Protecting the wellbeing of students, staff, faculty, and guests is not only simply the right thing to do, but it also reduces risk and exposure for the institution itself. While this has always been true, colleges and universities are now dealing with a greater variety of incidents while also being subjected to a much higher level of public scrutiny. At the same time, increases in legal fees and the other costs associated with incidents have driven the costs of responding to issues to extremely high levels. These costs are now so high that the only sustainable, viable model for mitigating incidents is preventing them before they can ever occur—and that requires new efforts and approaches.


Put simply, as virtually any safety or security official will attest, prevention is the most effective form of mitigation. Stopping a crisis before it can develop is always better, for all parties involved, than responding after the fact. The most effective way to prevent incidents of all kinds, from thefts to harassment, assaults and much more, is for safety and security officials to receive advanced intelligence of a potential problem, and act before the situation can escalate. Receiving this intelligence requires open, seamless, and anonymous lines of communication between security officials and the populations they are protecting.

Higher education institutions have long used a variety of methods to connect their students, staff, and faculty members with security. These include anonymous tip lines, email communications, blue lights call boxes, and more. The problem is that for a variety of reasons (human behavior, a perceived lack of anonymity, cumbersome communications/ phone calls, etc.), none of these have been terribly effective. Consequently, vital, actionable intelligence too often does not get conveyed to the authorities who are in position to act and prevent an incident before it can develop. Far too often, after the fact, it is discovered that multiple people were aware of issues surrounding what became a crisis, but they didn’t speak up at the time.

The most notable example is the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, which killed 32 and injured dozens more. The final report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel documented at least 18 pre-attack indicators spanning several years that should have led to greater scrutiny of the shooter’s behaviors and mental stability leading up to the attack. Dozens of students, teachers and staff observed these indicators. Had there been a way to report and act upon these risk indicators there is a good chance authorities could have prevented this tragedy from ever happening.


This is where modern technology can truly make a difference. Virtually every student, staff member, and faculty member carry a smartphone. Furthermore, people are already comfortable using these devices to share all manner of information. Leveraging these devices, their connectivity, and people’s familiarity with them in the interest of safety and security is an efficient way to overcome many of the issues that have traditionally impeded the delivery of actionable risk intelligence. Put another way, modern technology can digitize the “if you see something, say something” mentality that is so often stressed by security officials. It makes it much easier to actually “say something.”

By routing the proverbial “tip line” through a smartphone, security officials are able to receive a much greater volume of critical intelligence from empowered users. This new approach to prevention creates a culture of shared responsibility and vigilance. It encourages and enables students, teachers and staff to report on the full spectrum of risks, from everyday facility safety issues and theft to more serious incidents involving sexual assault or suicidal ideation.

There are many advantages to a smartphone-based intelligence sharing platform. Anonymity is as easy as a swipe of the finger or the push of a button. This feature eliminates potential blowback and just as importantly, the perception of blowback, making it much more likely that students and other users will actually report potential risks to security. Smartphones can also capture images, audio, and other assets, aside from written tips. Smartphones are ubiquitous and always present, meaning that a user is never more than arm’s length away from a device immediately and easily capable of notifying security.

Smartphone-based risk intelligence platforms are also highly adaptable, with virtually endless applications. There are many institutions across the nation that are experimenting with these powerful platforms right now. Georgetown University was recently one of several institutions honored by LiveSafe, a company that produces a mobile safety communications platform and risk mitigation tool, for their outstanding use of our people-sourced, incident-prevention risk communications platform.


The university was experiencing an uptick in laptop thefts in their library. As opposed to the usual mass, non-targeted message that an institution might send out (such as an email blast), the Georgetown University Chief of Public Safety leveraged a newer, more dynamic part of the LiveSafe platform—time-based geo-fenced messages that target a specific audience over a period of time in a particular location. The chief made the geo-fenced message “active” for a few days, ensuring that students who walked into the library and “tripped” the geo-fence would be notified of the thefts and encouraged to keep all of their belongings with them at all times. By notifying people of the potential threat, additional thefts were avoided. If more thefts had occurred, a greater deployment of security and investigative resources would have been required. Preventing the thefts from continuing was far more effective than investigating and responding to claims of stolen property.

Georgetown is not the only institution making innovative use of this sort of technology. In September 2017, Central Connecticut State University officially deployed LiveSafe. On September 28, 2017 (less than 30 days after launching), Central Connecticut State University Police Department’s Dispatch Center received a LiveSafe tip through their dashboard regarding a community member who was actively inflicting injury to themselves and had suicidal ideations.

As a result of the LiveSafe tip, Dispatch was able to send officers to the location where they met the student and confirmed the injuries and the suicidal ideations. University Police were able to render medical assistance and ensure that long-term care was made available. A potentially tragic scenario was averted and a community member in need was helped. Without that early warning, this incident could have played out much more tragically.

There are countless other applications for this sort of platform. One popular feature involves smart-notified “safe walks.” Users can map out their route on Google Maps, complete with estimated travel times, and select contacts (which can include security officials) to be notified. Once the trip begins, the app will require the user to push a button at regular intervals, confirming they are safe. Should that button not be pressed, the selected contacts will be notified. This is a highly useful feature for students on college campuses who may be concerned about walking alone, especially late at night.


These platforms are only as powerful as the people who use them. As more colleges and universities commit to incident prevention by using smartphone-based risk intelligence tools, they also must undertake an effort to engage the entire campus community. Every additional set of eyes and ears that contributes to reporting helps make prevention a reality for campus law enforcement and security officials.

Ensuring safety and security on campus must be a collaborative effort. Leveraging an institution’s most valuable asset—its people—is not only the most effective way of preventing incidents, but also demonstrates that the administration is taking safety and security seriously. People-sourced risk intelligence platforms empower individuals to take ownership of their own well-being, and contribute to the safety and security of their campus community by maximizing the situational awareness of their local police and security departments.

Open lines of communication between security officials and the general population have the potential to improve the overall relationship between a university administration and the community it serves. This sort of incident prevention and communications model demonstrates a shared interest and commitment in creating a safer campus and engenders mutual respect among members of the community. The result is a healthier, safer and more inclusive campus for all.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Campus Security Today.