An Indiana University of Pennsylvania student awoke one morning to find an armed man attempting to steal her computer. Police later said the student was targeted simply because her door was unlocked.
In 2006, USA Today reported that in the preceding six years, 39 of the 43 fire fatalities involving college students occurred in off-campus housing.
Okay, we don’t want to scare you too much. Sending your child off to college with the logistics of moving, the looming tuition bills and the emotions of letting go is emotional enough without having to worry about your son’s or daughter’s safety. That’s why Mt. Lebanon firefighters and police officers created a campus safety program for parents. The class debuted last month and will be held annually in the spring when families with juniors are touring campuses and high school seniors are shopping and preparing for the big move.
“We are hoping to make attendees aware of some of the things which make the college environment different from their hometown,” says Cpl. James Hughes. “Hopefully, parents will be better equipped to recognize some of the signs that their child may be doing some dangerous things, as well as make them aware of some of the ‘common sense’ things that they can do to help their children have a safe, educational experience.”
We gathered a few fire and police tips and suggest parents consider these things while looking at schools and that they talk with their kids about ways to stay safe.
A false sense of security can be a college student’s biggest obstacle, says Tom Ogden, police chief at Carnegie Mellon University (and former Mt. Lebanon police chief). Students often leave dorm rooms unlocked, walk home late from parties and are careless with computers, iPods and other valuables. According to Ogden, theft is the most common crime on college campuses—with students typically reporting thefts after they left their table “for just a second” at the library or coffee shop or walked away from an unlocked dorm room to visit a friend down the hall or take a shower.
- Never leave valuables in plain view or near windows or open doors.
- Take valuables with you when leaving the residence for an extended period of time. This holds true even after you’ve graduated from dorm living to off-campus housing, which can be a target for burglaries during holiday breaks.
- Create a list of brand names, model numbers and serial numbers of any items—from computers to bicycles—that are valuable. Leave those numbers at home with mom or dad.
Ogden says students shouldn’t live in fear, but need to take simple precautions. “Close your doors. Lock your windows,” he says, adding that one of the best ways to prevent burglary is to avoid “piggybacking”— when you hold a dorm door open kindly or absentmindedly for a stranger behind you. Sure, you might feel rude closing the door in someone’s face, but think of it this way: by being rude you might be protecting a young woman from an abusive ex-boyfriend or a friend from having his laptop stolen.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates one out of five college women will be sexually assaulted. Many colleges offer self defense classes, and it’s worth the time to enroll. “It’s training to avoid problems,” Ogden says, adding these classes often cover how to avoid other dangerous situations.
- Avoid walking alone after dark and don’t take shortcuts. “You need to be aware of where you are,” Ogden says.
- Enter the number for campus-sponsored escort services in your cell phone for those times when walking alone at night can’t be avoided.
- If your college has “Code Blue” emergency phones, make note of the locations.
- Make sure roommates or friends know your plans, including how and when you’ll get back home.
- Program emergency numbers (such as your resident advisor and campus police) into your cell phone.
- Don’t leave drinks unattended at parties; someone could drug the beverage.
A few other tips:
- Don’t hide keys over doors, under mats, or in other places—burglars know all of the hiding places.
- Report lost or stolen keys or access cards immediately.
- List only your initials on your mailbox.
- Never leave notes on your door saying you are out.
When touring colleges, ask for a report of the crimes that occurred on campus. Thanks to the Jeanne Clery Act, a federal law enacted following the rape and murder of Jeanne Clery in her Lehigh dorm, all schools must disclose crime statistics. In addition, most colleges will send out email and texts—or use Facebook and Twitter—when there are incidents that students should be aware of for safety reasons.
Crimes aren’t the only campus safety concern. Many students are unprepared for a fire in their apartments or dorms. Amid books, lamps and computers, a smoke detector and fire extinguisher are probably not at the top of the packing checklist. They should be. “You want to have working smoke detectors in your room,” says Lt. Mike Stohner of Mt. Lebanon Fire Department’s Community Service and Outreach Platoon.
Not all dorm rooms are equipped with working smoke detectors; so if you don’t have one, get one. Test it monthly and replace batteries at least once a year. When touring a campus, be sure the dorm has a sprinkler system. Upon moving in, note where fire extinguishers are mounted and learn the evacuation plan (colleges should cover this in the orientation).
- Memorize the number of doors to the two nearest exits.
- Don’t place anything within 36 inches of appliances that get hot.
- Buy appliances with automatic turnoff features and space heaters that turn off automatically if knocked over.
- Never drape towels, clothing or any item over light bulbs.
- Use surge protectors not extension cords, and don’t overload power strips or outlets. If an appliance cord or the outlet feels hot, the appliance should be disconnected immediately. Report any outlet that is damaged or no longer grips plugs properly to the campus housing staff immediately.
- Never use candles and avoid torchiere halogen lamps, which can overheat.
- If you have cooking appliances, make sure they are turned off after use, and never leave your cooking unattended.
If a fire does break out, be sure to take your room key in case you are forced to re-enter the room due to impassible heat, smoke or fire. As you leave, close your room door to prevent unnecessary smoke damage to your room. In smoky hallways, stay low to get the cleaner, cooler air. Of course, never use elevators during a fire.
Stohner says most campus buildings, even bigger ones like the Pitt Towers, tend to be safe so long as students make sure to keep the fire doors closed.
The Campus Firewatch website reports that more than 80 percent of the campus-related fire fatalities across the nation since January 2000 have occurred in off-campus housing. “As soon as you go off-campus, the fatality rates really skyrocket,” Stohner says of fires. Four big factors in those numbers are a lack of automatic fire sprinklers, missing or disabled smoke alarms, careless disposal of smoking materials and impaired judgment from alcohol consumption.
Off campus housing should have:
- Working smoke detectors. Buy them yourselves, as who knows when the landlord last replaced one. Place one in common areas (living room, kitchen) and in every bedroom.
- Two ways out of the building.
- An escape plan (make note of any special locking or security hardware on the door).
- Windows that open easily (not painted shut). Any windows equipped with theft deterrent bars should have a workable release mechanism that can be easily reached.
- Fire extinguishers (and the knowledge of how they work) and a carbon monoxide detector.
Stohner encourages students who are looking at off-campus housing to check the city’s inspection office to learn more about the building, as many apartments, duplexes and houses located close to colleges are older buildings that may not be up to code. You also should ask the landlord if the furnace is inspected annually. Once you move in, keep hallways, stairways, doors and windows clear of any materials that could create tripping hazards or obstructions during an evacuation.
Starting college is exciting, and no teenager eager to taste the freedom of college life wants to be bothered with things like safety. Parents can help by keeping these tips in mind while touring campuses. But maybe the best piece of advice a parent can pass on to their college-bound child is to trust his or her instincts.
As Ogden says, “If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.”
Here are a few websites to check for more campus safety information.
with additional reporting by Chris Maggio