The Challenges with security in university accommodation

The Challenges with security in university accommodation

Jane Farrell, FM Development Manager, Sodexo and Chairman International Professional Security association (IPSA)

In the last two decades, a scrutinising eye has been turned to the important issue of safety on university and college campuses. From tragic events such as the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 and more recently the shooting at Winston Salem state university, North Carolina in 2015 it’s no wonder young adults and their parents are listing safety when it comes to important factors when choosing a university or college.

In the UK, safety does appear to feature highly on prospectuses, websites and information is plentiful for both students and parents. For many students, going to University is their first real taste of living independently. Whilst it’s both an exciting and stressful time for students and their parents, the good news is universities have had many years of experience at dealing with new students which means there are lots of mechanisms in place to make the transition as easy as possible

Most universities have a number of initiatives on campus to ensure that their students are as safe as possible including as a typical example:

  • A security control room manned 24 hours a day
  • 24 hour CCTV campus coverage
  • A community police officer on site who can offer advice to students regarding safety and security issues
  • Personal attack alarms handed out to new students in Welcome Week
  • Emergency taxi scheme
  • Well-lit campus
  • A Saturday night bus to ensure students get home from the Students’ Union safely

Unfortunately, thieves do target student residences but by taking sensible precautions students can do much to prevent crime and are given good advice from security, the police and university

  • Always close and lock your windows and door when you are away from your room or flat even if it is just for a few minutes
  • Never wedge doors open
  • Property mark your possessions - property marking pens are available from your site reception
  • Don’t let anybody you don’t know into your block or flat. All University staff and contractors working on our behalf carry identification
  • If you do see anybody acting suspiciously contact the Police and, if you can, your site reception
  • Please don’t leave your valuables where they can be seen from outside your room
  • Never label your keys with your address and never put your keys in a bag that contains anything with your address on wherever possible. Inform your site reception straight away if you lose your keys and never give your keys to anyone else
  • Don’t feel embarrassed, but REPORT any loss of keys/fobs to the staff responsible for your residence. Lost or stolen fobs can be rendered useless in minutes, and the University can arrange for locks to be changed, should a key go missing.

In addition to all the good advice and help above many of the universities also have their pastoral care teams and there role is to llisten to the students as sometimes that is all that is necessary, talk – they will point them in the right direction, and or give practice advice on where to go now, or what to do next, respond – they will actively deal with problems where they can. Good order issues: the welfare of one person can be affected by the ‘enjoyment’ of another, e.g. noise

Students can contact the pastoral team for a whole range of reasons for example:

  • They are lonely, homesick or finding it difficult to settle in
  • They are unsure how the university operates
  • They are concerned about one of the students in their flat and don’t know what to do or how to help
  • Something has happened and they don’t know what to do

With all the above in place, let’s have a look at the role of security in student accommodation and the challenges they face

The objective of the Security and Porter teams is to provide a safe, secure and supportive environment to all students, staff and visitors in the accommodation provided

Security are normally the first point of contact when it comes to reporting a crime or incident that takes place within the accommodation services premises and involves any person using the facilities. Within Student Accommodation however there are a number of recurring problems that security officers could say happen on a daily basis, these include-

  • Lockouts, residents losing keys/fobs
  • Noise complaints
  • Lost property
  • Worried parents asking officers to check on their child as they cannot contact them (they are usually asleep or just not answering their phone but officers react to every enquiry)
  • First aid incidents, a lot of these tend to be alcohol / drug related or burns from cooking
  • Fire activations, malicious or smoking / cooking
  • Tailgating/trespass by non-Residents looking to cause trouble/criminal activity

Many security officers now work under the banner of Facilities Support Officers or something similar (rather than dedicated Security), this is due to the nature of their unique duties, and you could say that no two night shifts are the same. The Facilities Support Officers provide a much more in-depth service than that of your typical manned guard role. For many of the residents, this is the first time they are away from home and Mum and Dad, some settle in straight away but others may find the transition very difficult and the Facilities Officer can suddenly be presented with a multitude of personal, intricate and difficult problems in the middle of the night.

I will highlight some of the more unusual problems that where presented to me during researching for this article

  • Attempted suicide (multiple occasions)
  • Depression
  • Bullying
  • Mental health problems
  • Hard drug abuse
  • Residents having weapons such as knives, crossbows, air guns, samurai swords etc.
  • Alleged rape and various sexual assaults
  • Serious assault.
  • Kidnapping (by family members)
  • Prostitution

That is just a small selection of incidents that were revealed to me by an officer working within the Education Sector. This demonstrates that the Facilities Support Officer at any given time has to make the transition into someone who can effectively deal with very personal and emotional welfare issues at a very core level.

Whilst some of the above is quite shocking to read, there is a fine line between what a Facilities Support Officer can do to support a student and when they should and do pass the problem across to the appropriate supportive team or authority e.g. pastoral care or the police

These officers are trained to deal with conventional security issues in their SIA licence training which includes customer care and conflict management. Some security companies will also ensure enhanced training in physical intervention and provide personal protective equipment (PPE) such as safety shoes and hi visibility clothing. To provide stab vests for protection against knife crime which unfortunately does exist in large cities, however remains a little controversial as a place of learning is considered a safe environment whilst an officer working in an A&E department in a major city (the same city) will be provided with this type of PPE

Loneliness does appear to be the main problem presented to the officers and many universities now employ “Student Ambassadors” within the security teams to talk to students and arrange quiz nights, organised events and encourage the students to speak about their issues.

As well as all of the above issues the Facilities Officer still carries out and are trained in the conventional duties of dedicated Security, such as-

  • Patrolling
  • Locking buildings down
  • Security checks
  • Check calls
  • CCTV monitoring
  • Access/egress control
  • Mail/parcels

In summary, the security officer’s role in student accommodation is far more complex than the traditional manned security officer. As a security industry we need to recognise this in the core training provided during the licensing process, particularly in the pastoral care skills required in this environment. As a parent of two sons going through the university experience, who fortunately have had good experiences, I found the university websites, advice and information very helpful whilst in halls of residence but perhaps a little more information should be given in terms of security when they delve into private rented accommodation. Now, this for any fellow parents of university students is another ball game and a lesson in dealing with landlords would be very beneficial! There are no caring security officers or facility officers at hand to support!