Safe at Home

Oct. 1, 2004
Whether a campus is in the heart of the city or in a pastoral setting off the beaten path, education institutions are working to make student housing safer.

To get to their rooms in the new Summit Hall at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, students make a simple trip from the lobby through two sets of corridors. For someone who doesn't live there, the trip is not so easy — and that's the idea.

The school provides students with electronic proximity devices that grant them access to the building corridors and the door of the housing unit. An unauthorized visitor would have to outwit the security system three times to gain entry into a student's suite.

“Students and parents really appreciate the level of security the building offers,” says Mary Ellen Sinnwell, the university's director of residence life.

The multiple layers of security at Colorado State and other campuses across the nation might seem unnecessary to some, but housing officials, whether at large urban campuses or small, secluded sites, want to make sure that students residing on campus under their care can live and learn in safe and secure surroundings.

“Whether you are on a busy street in an urban setting, or in the country at a land-grant institution, there is a more sophisticated understanding of the need for heightened security in residence halls,” says Deb Lewis, vice chancellor of student services at the University of Missouri — Kansas City.

Tapping technology

Most colleges and universities have tried to provide sufficient security for students living in residence halls; but in many cases, those security measures could be defeated by the persistence of criminals or the carelessness of residents. A staff member could monitor who enters and exits a residence hall, but there usually aren't enough staff to watch all entries 24 hours a day. A staff member may be able to watch the front entrance and lobby, but not the laundry room, study lounges or other isolated parts of the building. The housing staff could lock exterior doors, but a student could leave one of the doors open, intentionally.

But in recent years, technology has come to the rescue to plug many of the holes in residence hall security. Access-control systems allow students to enter a residence hall while keeping the entrances locked to outsiders. The security systems will alert staff members or campus police if a door is malfunctioning or has been left open too long. Schools can extend the use of access-control systems to cover specific floors or rooms in a residence hall, or to restrict access to certain hours of the day. Affordable camera systems allow housing staff members or security personnel to monitor areas inside and outside residence halls that otherwise could be potential danger spots.

Colleges and universities that have built new residence halls combine the new technologies with staffing resources to boost security on their campuses.

Access-control systems help schools keep unauthorized visitors out of restricted areas of residence halls, and allow security officials to record when and where a student comes in and out of a building.

Technology has enabled Colorado State University to do away with traditional room keys for Summit Hall, its newest residence hall, which opened in August. The students living there may call the gadget they carry with them a “key,” but it actually is an electronic proximity device.

It controls access not only to students' rooms, but also to the corridor of the floor they live on and to the corridor leading to their wing of the building. The university's older residence halls have a similar three-tiered system, except that the students' rooms are secured with conventional locks and keys.

“It's a three-tiered security system,” says Sinnwell. “If you are in the building, you have to go through at least two more layers of security before you get to a student's room.”

The new hall has three- or four-person suites with bathrooms; the older halls have community bathrooms, and those areas have access control with keypad entry.

At the University of Missouri — Kansas City, along a main city thoroughfare, the newly opened Oak Street Hall provides space for 561 students. Lobby doors are open during the day, but are locked at night. Students need to use a swipe card to enter the residential areas from the lobby and must use the swipe card to activate the elevators, says Lewis. A traditional key-and-lock system controls entry to each housing unit.

Meanwhile, a member of the housing staff is on duty at the lobby desk 24 hours a day, and staff members routinely make rounds through the building to make sure it is secure. Campus police also patrol the area and are available to respond to incidents. Cameras provide surveillance of areas inside and outside the building.

Similar concerns

The University of Maine at Fort Kent is in a town of about 4,000 near the Canadian border, and has about 800 full- and part-time students. But the concern for security on campus is no less than at other campuses around the nation.

“It's a very small, safe campus,” says Scott Voisine, the university's director of student services, “but the world is changing.”

So when the Lodge, a 150-student residence hall, opened in August, it was equipped with an access-control system. Students must swipe a card through a reader to gain entry to the building.

California State University Stanislaus in Turlock, Calif., has one of the lowest crime rates of CSU campuses, according to Mark Erickson, the school's director of housing. Still, the new three-story student residence that the school opened earlier this year doesn't' stint on security.

“The new housing is a gated community,” says Erickson. “All of the front doors are self-locking. We have cameras at the gates and other locations.”

Members of the housing staff complement the security systems with regular monitoring of the university's residence halls — and gentle reminders about safety precautions.

“When a staff member comes upon unlocked housing units,” says Erickson, “they leave a notice that says, ‘If I were a burglar, you would have lost all your belongings.’”

Even though the campus is relatively crime-free, adds Erickson, “there is very much more concern over the safety of the residents, especially at night.”

The university offers an escort service to students who do not want to walk alone on campus.

“For students, it's a bit of a bother, but it's something they know they have to live with,” says Erickson. “When something happens, they appreciate the security.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].


  • 60

    Percentage of residence hall projects completed in 2003 that have electronic security systems.
    Source: American School & University, 15th Annual Residence Hall Construction Report, June 2004.

  • 7

    Number of murders or non-negligent manslaughter reported in U.S. residence halls, 2002.
    Source: U.S. Department of Education

  • 933

    Number of aggravated assault cases reported in U.S. residence halls, 2002.
    Source: U.S. Department of Education

  • 1,670

    Number of forcible sex offenses reported in U.S. residence halls, 2002.
    Source: U.S. Department of Education

  • 12,754

    Number of burglaries reported in U.S. residence halls, 2002.
    Source: U.S. Department of Education

Security-savvy students

A well-designed residence hall that is equipped with the latest technology can provide students a safe and secure living space. But the critical component in ensuring the effectiveness of the security system is the student.

“You can have the most technologically savvy security system available, but if residents don't honor the system, it isn't going to be effective,” says Deb Lewis, vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “The students are partners with us in making the residence halls safe and secure.”

Here are some tips that student-housing officials should encourage students to follow to enhance their safety on campus:

  • Never prop open residence hall doors.

  • To guard against theft, residents should always lock the doors of their rooms, even if they are only going to be away for a few seconds.

  • Lock doors and windows, especially windows on lower floors, when alone or sleeping.

  • Do not leave messages on your door or on voice mail revealing that you are away or when you will return.

  • Never let strangers into the residence hall, and report strangers loitering in or near a residence hall to authorities.

  • Walk in groups, or take advantage of shuttle vans and escort services that many schools provide to help students return safely to their residence halls.

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