College Safety and Hard Questions: ‘Will I Be Safe On Your Campus?’

We’re thankful for our contributor Kelly Rawlings’ personal and touching perspective on college and university safety. We hope it inspires parents and students to learn more about the violence that occurred at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, and talk frankly and openly about college safety. – Ed.

After April 16, 2007, what had been one of the easiest questions I ever had to answer as a college recruiter became one of the most difficult. On that date, I was employed by Virginia Tech. I worked in Burruss Hall, the building directly beside Norris Hall, where 30 innocent students and professors were gunned down by another student. Until that day, Blacksburg, Virginia had seemed idyllic. Safe. I had been naive.

Ignorance Is Bliss Until It’s Shattered

The following fall, I was back on the road recruiting students to come to Virginia Tech. The emotions of what our university, town and community had endured were still very raw. More than once I had to choke back tears as students would walk by my table and tell their friends, “yeah, that’s that school where all those kids got shot up.” I listened to a Mom tell her son that he couldn’t go to Virginia Tech because she didn’t want him to get shot. Kids would routinely ask, “What was it like?”

I would remind myself that they’re not necessarily insensitive, just young and curious.

But it was the question from parents that would prove to be the one that would take my breath away each time I heard it, “Will my child be safe at your college?” It had been so easy to answer before April 16th. And what could I say now?

No Longer Naive

I understood that it was my job to make students (and parents) want Virginia Tech, but I was no longer naive and I value honesty. I no longer blindly believed that yes, of course, you would be safe at Virginia Tech. We had all been trained to talk about the new safety measures Virginia Tech implemented and how, because of the shootings, Virginia Tech was likely one of the safest campuses now. Our amazing police department was praised repeatedly. We talked about the blue lights, the new door locks, message boards in each classroom, and the new alert system. But was that really answering the question?

It’s a yes or no question, but there’s really not a yes or no answer.

Honesty

The honest answer is “I don’t know.” That answer is the same regardless of the college, the town, or the student. What I do know with 100% certainty is that if it could happen at Virginia Tech, it could happen anywhere. Because of that, my response to that question has to be “I don’t know.”

No college can guarantee safety and if you find one that does, cross it off your list! Eventually the response I settled on was something like this: “I, too, am a parent. My toddlers attend the daycare housed right in the middle of campus so I understand your concerns more than your realize. But, I wouldn’t drop them off everyday if I didn’t believe they were as safe here as they would be anywhere else.”

Sadly, Virginia Tech was far from the last school shooting. We should all know by now that no school can guarantee safety. Stop asking, “Will my child be safe?” Instead, ask questions to help you determine if the college is doing a good job of making the campus as safe as any campus can be. While far from an exhaustive list, here are some questions that make more sense:

Hard Questions

1) What prevention programs does this college have in place to minimize the risk of violence on campus?
2) What does this college do to make campus safety a priority?
3) What communication plans are in place in the event of emergencies?
4) How and when are students educated about emergency plans?
5) Is there a police presence on campus at all times?

Don’t look for false assurances. Look for facts and action. Research the publicly available and required Clery Act Reports. Search for a place where you can confidently say, “I think I’ll be as safe here as I would be anywhere else.”



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