Keeping Student Housing Communities Safe

It has been over three years since the Virginia Tech massacre, but student housing owners and managers remember it well. Are there other, similar events waiting to happen, and what can, and should, the industry do to prevent them from happening?

Old-school practices go a long way in keeping communities safe, but in recent years, technology has revolutionized crime prevention, providing managers with a plethora of options—from electronic locking systems to motion-sensor surveillance. But technology and old school practices alone cannot prevent crime or help in dealing with violent situations. Existing federal and state regulations help managers in establishing programs, and education and training keeps those procedures and programs updated and in practice.

A strategy that combines all three of these elements will keep a student housing property from attracting criminals or becoming a ground for students to commit crimes.

Janice Johnson, executive director at the University Center Chicago, believes that the security of a building is directly related to the reputation of a property. And once the reputation of a property is ruined, it could take up to three or four years for the owner/manager to get it back. “You really have to wait for the current batch of students to pass out of college,” Tonya Neumeier, vice president of management systems at Campus Advantage, said recently at a panel about crime prevention at the NMHC Student Housing Conference. The session discussed how a variety of factors, including regulations, technology and awareness, play crucial roles in keeping student housing properties safe.

Regulations: How does higher education look at crime?

The Higher Education Act of 1965 is a federal act that includes crime awareness, and the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, originally known as the Campus Security Act, requires colleges and universities across the United States to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses. It is reauthorized every five to 10 years. The idea behind the Act was that parents and students would be able to make informed decisions about campuses if they had knowledge about crime statistics.

Under the Act, educational institutions must publish and distribute their Annual Campus Security Report to current and prospective students and employees; the institution’s police department or security departments are required to maintain a public log of all crimes reported to them, or those of which they are made aware; and the log is required to have the most recent 60 days’ worth of information. In addition, institutions are required to give timely warnings of crimes that represent a threat to the safety of students or employees and publish their policies regarding timely warnings in their Annual Campus Security Report. Also, colleges must keep the most recent three years of crime statistics that occurred on campus, in institution residential facilities, in non-campus buildings or on public property.

“If you have a written contract with the university, you are legally obligated to follow the Act and its reauthorizations, so student housing operators need to pay attention to those updates,” said Johnson.

While off-campus student housing is included in some parts of the Act, it’s excluded from others. For example, the Higher Education Act requires campuses to collect a confidential contact, should a student be missing for over 24 hours. The student has to be given the option to choose the contact; this applies only to on-campus housing. “In order to incorporate the same controls in off-campus housing as those for on-campus housing, we need to be paying attention to these reauthorizations and making partnerships. Students expect the same off- and on-campus living experiences as it relates to safety and security,” said Johnson.

Another useful tool that off-campus housing operators can take advantage of are threat assessment teams. A state requirement in some cases, these teams did not exist in most colleges before the Virginia Tech massacre. Johnson said these teams help in making a determination as to whether a student or faculty member is posing a risk to themselves or others. In recent years, off-campus housing managers and owners have been able to get access to those assessment teams.

“Even if a property is not part of campus housing, these teams would be willing to help out because their students are living on their property. We now have more access to them than ever before,” Neumeier said. “If a student makes us nervous because of his/her behavior, we ask the team to help us out. If there is someone who is deemed as a threat, we listen to our gut and also refer the person to the threat assessment team at the university he or she is attending.”

Maureen Blair, director of University Housing Services at the Illinois State University, said that the threat assessment team has members all over campus, so you get views from everywhere. “The team takes action on behalf of the campus. Most campus teams are focused on students but could also involve faculty,” she said.

Old-school methods and technology

Both have to go hand-in-hand. One without the other is not the most optimal way to keep a property safe. One of the oldest methods is physical security and within that there is natural surveillance, natural access control or natural territorial reinforcements.

Natural surveillance includes things like not giving access to roofs and balconies; making sure there is fencing and the least limiting fencing so you see everything on the exterior; having lighting to avoid blind spots; adding lower-intensity lights across the property so that students don’t feel intruded upon but at the same time making sure they can walk around safely.

Natural access control or territorial reinforcements is making sure there is a seen or perceived presence all over the property. For example, if there is barbed-wire fencing, it might give the idea that there isn’t a management person on site. If there are well-used amenities, it is a good idea to put them at the front of the property to deter criminals from coming in. Also, have a lot of the events in well-traveled parts of the property to give the perception that there are a lot of people around.

Maintenance is another critical old-school method to prevent crime. It is an expression of ownership of the property. “Criminals are more likely to be attracted to unkempt properties. The more deterioration there is on a property, the more crime there will likely be,” Neumeier explained.

For example, if you have broken windows, people are more likely to throw more rocks to break more windows. So keep the building well-maintained. A small matter, which can make a difference in the atmosphere of the property, is having visitor regulations and making sure they are implemented. As far as mechanical and procedural matters, make sure gates, doors and locks are all working.

“In terms of technology, universities are always at the cutting-edge so it’s a good idea to find out what they are using, and then implement that at your property,” she added. There are two types of electronic security systems today: online and offline. The online system has a contact-less card and it can be controlled from remote point. An offline system is what the hotel industry uses. To control the door, you have to physically go to the door. The student housing industry is moving toward the online locking system.

Owners and managers could use a combination of both at the property, Johnson said. “There is a lot out there, so explore because there’s always something new. While the offline system is cheaper, online is a better security system.”

Video surveillance is also a huge trend, Neumeier said. “There is a motion-sensory system, which activates if the camera detects motion. It also has the ability to talk to the person caught on camera. It’s primarily retired police officers who monitor this. The system is making huge inroads because it’s cheaper than having 24-hour security at your property.”

Another advantage that technology brings is the ability to save data longer. The age-old saying, “prevention is better than cure,” really does apply. The easiest way to keep crime off the property is not inviting it in the first place, and that can be done with the help of everything from traditional methods to new technologies. Criminal background checks are another way to prevent crime from happening.

Education and awareness

It is a best practice for student housing property managers and owners to have a published set of policies, which can be easily referenced. Blair said she keeps a hard copy of the property handbook with her and makes the changes as, and when, she realizes something needs to be changed. “This way you are on top of it, and when the time comes to take action, you have the information,” she said. She also suggests walking through the property so you can understand the risk factors, possible solutions and ways to fix or mitigate those risks.

Crime often starts small and grows incrementally, so it’s important to keep an eye on it. Blair added, “We learned from Virginia Tech that people often have small pieces of information that could be insignificant, and that’s where the assessment teams come in. The people who might think there is suspicious behavior often don’t say anything because they don’t know what to do.”

Emergency notification systems are a great way to keep people in the loop, and a lot of universities look at off-campus housing as an extension of the campus, so they might be willing to notify close-by student housing properties in case of emergencies.

Having training programs in place and communicating efficiently with staff can have a far-reaching impact on the security of a property. Building relationships with the police, fire and medical communities in the area can also be useful. “People will be much more willing to help when something bad happens,” said Johnson.

Lesser-known crimes, such as fraud, often go unnoticed and property managers and owners should also try to build awareness about such crimes. Only 15 percent of all fraud is caught, and of that, only 18 percent is caught by internal audit. Background checks, securing assets and data, and assigning accountability are ways in which that can be achieved. Neumeier added, “The company should lead by example, starting with ethical behavior at the top. Have a hotline to note these things. Don’t accept money orders and cash payments, the easiest ways through which fraud can be committed. If you are accepting credit cards, make sure there is no way for people to note down the numbers, etc. Make sure multiple sets of eyes are looking at contracts.”

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