Objective Correlatives, Broken Windows and Customer Service: 10 Steps to Increase the Feeling and Reality of Security on Campus
The horrendous events at Virginia Tech have led to a number of inquiries on campus safety and retention going forward. There are no good answers for what happened. For the parents, families and the Virginia Tech community there will just be questions and anger. I know, unfortunately. We lost our 26 year-old son to meningitis just over a year ago. We deal with questions and anger over his death and so we know the emotions of the entire VTU community will be running very high. We also know that when others know of our loss, they worry more about their own children. The tragedy will affect every parent with a student on a campus. They will look at their own students and your campus with a very protective and wary eye.So how can we reduce some of the vehemence over safety and security services that will be felt on every campus? An intensity that will be felt by every administrator and board member. Parents and the media are going to want to know how your school will make certain their child is safe on your campus. And keep in mind that articles like the Wall Street Journal’s October 2006 piece in the FBI Stats Show Many Colleges Understate Campus Crime will be likely kept in front of the media and public as they should be.
This is a time when a policy statement or reprinting brochures on campus safety on campus will not due. People will want action, visible signs that the school is taking steps to make the campus even more secure. If the campus is safe, great. But parents are going to want even more safety, assurance, and visible actions.
Safety as a Metaphor
Visible is an important word here. What comes into play is the concept of the objective correlative. The campus as a physical metaphor for the tone and atmosphere that defines a sense of security, safety and control. Since we all, and particularly our students, think metaphorically, buildings, grounds, bathrooms, interiors and all that is visible inside become metaphors, statements of meaning and values just as objects in a poem set the tone and add to perception of meaning.
Small things and small events can also add to the symbolism that adds up to the appreciation of students and parents that safety, security and protection are in place. That the campus and dorms are as safe as they can be.
So, and without cynicism, the appearances of safety are extremely important. The “Broken Window” approach that helped bring greater sense of security and some argue real safety increases to NYC in the 1990’s, will help here too. The theory was developed by Wilson and Kelling in 1982. It goes something like this. If someone breaks a window in a building and that first broken window in the building is not repaired, people will assume that no one cares about the building. Therefore it is okay to break more windows because no one seems to care. So more windows will be broken. Soon the building will have no windows. It is also likely doors will be busted in and more crime and havoc done to the building. But if the first window is fixed and re-fixed if needed, that action is a statement that we do care and window breaking will not be accepted. The appearance becomes a reality in peoples’ minds.
I was a skeptic of this approach at first when Police Chief Bill Bratton had the NYC police stop the homeless windshield washers from trying to earn a buck cleaning peoples’ car windows at traffic lights, enforcing public nuisance laws, public drinking, littering and so on. But it seems that the enforcement of these nuisance crimes created a metaphor for safety and enforcement for NYC. People believed the City and the NYPD cared. The feeling seemed to be “if they were attentive to small nuisance crimes that made me feel uneasy, they must be really be doing a solid job on real crime. People and tourists began to feel safer. They were not afraid to be out in the City. Tourism increased as did the public’s sense of security. And real crime did drop too. (There are arguments as to whether or not the “broken window and zero tolerance” were the factor but NYC did become recognized nationally as one of the safest cities anywhere.
When I was Chancellor at a college, we employed a version of the “broken window theory”. We had a rash of books, I Pods, purses, computers and other personal items being stolen from students and staff. People were becoming uneasy about their safety in buildings as a result. They also assumed the administration was not doing anything to make them more secure. Word was going out to the community that the school was not a safe one. Enrollment and retention were being hurt.
We were working on it but people didn’t realize it nor care. They just felt unsafe. We finally caught a book thief who gave us names of others he was working with. We called in the police to take them all out of the building in the lunch hour for maximum exposure. I also called a college meeting, canceled classes so students could come, and made some announcements on how and what we were doing to make sure they knew they were safe. We hired three more security people for the building, were changing all locks on doors, enforcing the locked door policy when a room was empty, would randomly check college ID cards and anyone without the card would be escorted off campus, putting in place a parking sticker registration and any car without a displayed sticker would be towed, increasing light bulb wattage in parking and perimeter lights and would not tolerate inappropriate language or behavior in classrooms, halls cafeteria, library, etc.
Faculty were asked to make sure attendance was taken, late students not admitted without prior notice, any student who left the class would not be allowed back in and marked absent, anyone sleeping in class was to be ejected, cell phones were to be off in class and if your's rang you would be asked to leave for the day and not come back in, computers were to be used for class purposes and not web surfing during class, and so on. And I personally assured faculty that I would support them in enforcing all this as long as they applied classroom decorum fairly, without prejudice and consistently,
Within days, surveys, comments and interviews showed the campus was a different place. Students were thankful for our steps. They felt more secure and happier at the school. They were most pleased with classroom decorum enforcement since it changed the learning environment. Students felt inappropriate classroom behavior was cheating them. They were learning less as bad behavior interrupted class and the professor. One student summed it up well. “Now we see you do give a damn about us and our learning and we care more about the school now too. I was outa here at the end of semester but I’ll stay now.”
Broken Window Theory on Campus
Considering the various constituencies and the politics on a campus, having the campus police/security enforce every rule will not necessarily work. For a few days, maybe even weeks, the community might accept greater enforcement, but that will end soon though the admonitions of administration’s “oppression of academic or other campus freedoms” will continue as a part of tradition. So what needs to be worked on is the objective correlatives that will be accepted and create a visible and real increased sense if security for students, parents and the community.
Ten Quick Yet Effective Security Steps1. Have all employees learn how to say hello, smile and ask others how they are doing once they enter the “greeting zone.” As if they mean it. Also, teach them how to follow-up less than positive responses from others. This is important. The school must indicate it cares about each student to increase a collective sense of comfort through caring. This is also quite important for many reasons from identifying upset students to showing you care to learn what can be done to improve customer services and increase retention.
2. Stop petty theft on campus i.e. stolen books, I Pods, computers, purses, etc. This is for students and staff as well. There is apparently a great new product on the market to help on this too. A company named SafePlace www.safeplace-usa.com has personal safes for students and staff to keep their personal stuff in whether they are in a dorm or set-up like lockers for commuters. They seem to be very effective too as stated by the Long Island University Director of Residence Life and Residences,
Student reports of lost/stolen personal property have been eliminated and reimbursement costs to the University have been eliminated as well…dealing with issues of lost/stolen property in the residence halls has been substantially eliminated….Parents have been fully supportive of this product to secure their students’ belongings.SafePlace can also make financial arrangements that can even create revenue for schools while increasing safety. And don't overlook the value of these small safes in offices so staff can secure their personal belongings.
3. Fix every broken light on campus and increase lighting in parking lots, pathways, halls and lobbies. Nothing generates a sense of fear than dark areas. Yes, I am fully aware that lighting wattage has been lowered to save money. Calculate the cost of the lighting against revenue lost from drops who feel unsafe on campus. Consider also the size of your evening college and the revenue it generates that IS lost when adults are nervous to park and walk. (Be glad to send a past article on lighting and retention I wrote just after 9/11. nealr@GreatServiceMatters.com)
4. Increase security patrols on foot and in cars. Park patrol cars not in service at the time in entrance areas to parking lots and other visible spots.
Make sure the halls are clean and uncluttered. Remove old posters, fliers and certainly anything ripped or scribbled over.
5. Either wash off or paint over any graffiti particularly in bathrooms. There is graffiti resistant paint that can help out in this area.
6. Consider having all staff and students wearing college id’s so it will be easy to determine if someone is not a member of the college community.
7. Do not ignore the safety needs and concerns of staff. They will be the ones to project a sense, a feeling as well as the metaphoric reality of safety and security on campus. If they are nervous or afraid their personal belongings may be stolen, they will surely project that to everyone around them.
8. Get out of the office, walk the campus and listen to students, staff and the community. Keep in mind that G-d gave us two ears but just one mouth for a reason. They will feel safer if you are out among them. Listening to them can also alleviate quite a bit of anxiety which often comes out of the feeling that the school does not care about them individually.
9. But also use the mouth G-d gave you. Email and fliers too. Let the community know you care and are doing things to increase an already safe campus. Communicate changes and improvements.
10. Have a campus safety and comfort audit conducted. There may be things that are problematic that you and other community members may not notice. This is the worn rug theory in action. It goes like this. When we were buying a house, we often noticed that the rugs were worn down or out. But the seller's did not notice. Why not? We are animals of patterned, habitual behavior so they had walked the same paths in the house every day. Rugs wear out incrementally from constant foot traffic over the same area. But since it was incremental, a little every day, they did not notice the wear pattens that we could easily see. They overlooked the wear and missed the potentially problematic situation. After all, it had always looked the same to them. It might be worthwhile to bring in a new set of eyes to look for rug problems that you and others grow to just overlook because it developed over time and now looks like it was always like that