Student Security: On Not Being a Victim at University
(While still having a good time!)
By Josh Nixon, ESP
I can almost hear the groan from here. Not another page talking about safety and security for students! Every year university students, college students and those considering it the next year are bombarded with advice from here, there and everywhere. Universities, colleges and local police forces seem to be on a campaign dedicated to filling your bag with leaflets, flyers and posters full of the latest ‘Top Ten Tips’ for staying safe while you’re at uni. This is all well and good, but you’ve had it up to your eyes from your parents already, and your teachers, and by the time you actually get to university you’re so sick of it all that you can’t even be bothered trying to remember the plethora of handy hints you’ve had thrown at you. By your first Christmas, even the little flyers you kept have now been taken off the cork-board and replaced with something much more useful, covered up with a timetable or flipped over and used to jot down that number. There’s no way you’d forget anyway, right?
I was recently approached by a good friend who asked me to write a little bit about my thoughts on personal security for students. This is something that I’ve been meaning to get around to for quite a while (as with most things I write as research, training and teaching of course take priority) however due to the vastness of the subject matter I was met with something of a problem when considering how to go about it. It would have been easiest to throw out another one of the aforementioned ‘Top Ten Tips’ style blog posts, but that felt almost dismissive of the issue. The problem with such a post is that it’s easy for many readers to take something like ten tips literally as the only ten things they need bear in mind, and I would hate to engender the false sense of security in someone that treating the issue so carelessly potentially could in some readers.
At the same time, the issue is enough for a book on its own, aside from all the other general personal security knowledge that is essential for university students that isn’t specifically focussed on their situation. Thus, the issue as a whole is far beyond the scope of a single blog post so please don’t take this as the entirety of all you need to consider for your personal security at university!
That said, after a fair amount of asking-around and distilling of my own thoughts, along with some other research, I’ve come up with four loose areas to focus on. As self-protection and personal security are vast and nebulous things, this loose and fuzzy approach with isolated areas of focus at any one time generally seems to work best. For you today, I have four, in no particular order.
This is the most obvious one that you’re all sick to death of hearing about, but it is important. The first thing you have to remember is that your property is not important! I can’t stress that enough. You are. If you’re under threat of violence and giving up your property could remove that danger and let you run off, then please do so. Don’t fight and put the safety of a person above the safety of a thing.
Going away to university, a lot of students will have an assortment of new and exciting possessions to take with them, and a lot of existing ones they’re taking along from home. A lot of you might treat yourself to a new phone with your student loan to help keep tabs on the sudden huge increase in size your social circles are seeing (or maybe even help organise your lectures and notes but let’s be honest, Facebook takes up more of your time than lectures do at university!). A new laptop or tablet is also often on the list of university essential items, and many of you will be taking advantage of the benefits of student current accounts. For some of you, this may be your first debit card. You could also be currently running your first car. Of course, you also want to look your best in front of all the people you’re meeting (especially on nights out) so there’ll be nice clothes and jewellery too.
These are just a handful of the most obvious examples of property that many students have with them at university. Of course you all know already that property, especially expensive property, can be a target for criminals so I won’t bore you with that. Here’s a few concerns though for a few obvious pieces of property:
Cars: Think about where you’re parking and how. When you choose a place to park, consider how that placement will influence the way you have to approach the vehicle when you come back to it. Is it somewhere well-lit if you’ll have to come back at night? Can you see your car from a distance and can you pass it by inconspicuously as though it wasn’t your car if you see someone inside it, waiting by it or even underneath it as you approach the vehicle? If you needed to pull off quickly in an emergency from your parking position, could you? Once you’re in your car after checking there’s nobody already inside (seriously, do that), remember that the very first thing you should do is lock your door. Never sit and check your phone or eat something or anything else without locking your door. Even before your seat belt or anything else – lock that door! Consider a door open if it isn’t locked.
Laptops: Online security is a huge topic which I intend to write about more in the future, but there’s a lot of information out there already so I recommend you look around yourself. A quick Google will get you lots of advice on this. Aside from that, here a few tips to bear in mind when taking your laptop around and using it:
It’s very easy to see what’s on your screen from behind, especially from an elevated position, so bear that in mind in lectures! Don’t let anyone see any personal information if you can help it unless you’re comfortable with them knowing it.
Don’t carry your laptop in a laptop bag. Carry it in a backpack or similar that can accommodate it properly which doesn’t scream out to everyone: ‘Hey everyone! I’ve got a laptop here!’ Something that isn’t too eye-catching is great, and you can get good, functional backpacks with padded laptop compartments in which I would recommend.
A good, strong cable lock for your laptop isn’t a fail-safe measure, but it does help and is worth using, even as a visual deterrent while you’re at the library. It broadcasts a clear message that you’re not an easy target for theft.
Fork Ltd have released an online service called Prey which works for many different devices (not just laptops but phones, etc too). You can find them here and the basic protection their app provides is free. It’s not perfect and is no guarantee, but it is another string to your bow in terms of the overall security of your property. With this, you can attempt to find out where your stolen laptop is, lock it, change its passwords remotely, delete data from it so the thief can’t get at your details and even take photos of the thief when they try to use the laptop! It should be said that this is recommended as information to give to the police – not to go on a vigilante thief-hunt with!
Mobile Phones: If your phone supports it, I recommend installing Prey on your phone as well as your laptop or tablet. The same as with a laptop or tablet, your screen can be easily seen from behind and especially from above, especially with newer IPS panel capacitive touchscreens designed with a high ppi, resolution and wide viewing angles in mind. This means that in situations such as sitting on the bus or in a lecture, the people behind can find it very easy to see your screen and what’s on it! Turn your brightness down if you can to whatever is the darkest level you can still use comfortably. That way it’s a little more difficult for others to see your screen and you’ll prolong your battery life. If you’re using it for anything while you’re out, consider your awareness. Ideally you won’t use it while out at all, but that’s unrealistic to expect all the time, so if you are texting make sure you look around you often and if you’re in a call keep it brief and, again, maintain awareness all around you as best you can. Use a numerical PIN rather than the newer pattern-drawing methods, which can be easy to guess by looking at the residue on the screen! The visual aspect of the phone is important too – don’t show it off with a flashy cover, especially if it’s an expensive one! A cheap, functionally protective cover is much better than a flashy one that advertises your wealth as the more expensive and eye-catching your phone is, the more likely to attract criminal attention it may be. You could also consider carrying a cheap, broken or old phone (with no SIM or other information in it) to hand over to a mugger giving you a few seconds of distraction with which to run away, keeping your real phone.
Credit and Debit Cards: For many students, university is the time that they become financially a lot more independent than they’ve ever been before. This often means getting your first debit card and using it often for shopping, to get cash out, online (the joys of searching through Amazon for all your books…) and everywhere else. The issue with this is, of course, one of security. If you’re getting money out, try to do it in a branch rather than from an ATM. If you have to use an ATM, maintain awareness by looking around often and listening too. If there’s anything at all that doesn’t feel right about the situation, cancel and move on. PIN security is important – one student I know kept her PIN on a piece of paper in her purse next to the card in case she forgot it! Needless to say, this is an absolute gift to a thief or mugger, so please don’t do it! If your card is stolen, call the bank or building society immediately. Don’t wait to sober up so you sound better on the phone in the morning – call straight away and lock out that card!
For all your property, it’s worth looking into Immobilise.com and logging your stuff. This article from Mycrimeprevention.com advises that you should also keep laptops and other particularly desirable items out of sight when you’re out. This article from Nottinghamshire Police adds:
Thieves frequently target student properties because they know students have rarely lived away from home before and may not be as security conscious as other people
Student properties are particularly at risk of being burgled at the beginning of each term and after Christmas when students bring new possessions with them
The location of your university and the nature of the area around it is important to bear in mind when considering your overall approach to personal security as a student. What I would recommend doing is looking at the local crime maps for your university’s area to see what kinds of crimes are most prevalent. While you need to remain vigilant about all the possible threats to yourself that you can think of, if there’s a clear precedent for a certain kind of crime in an area then it is beneficial to bear this in mind. Clicking here will take you to the police data, and all you need to do is type an area or postcode into the search box.
I would also recommend researching your area via Wikipedia and a reliable mapping service such as Google Maps (or download Google Earth) to get a basic feel for the area and how it’s laid out. If you can get a rough idea of where things are at least, this can be very beneficial. The reason is that aside from each area’s individual crime trends, the main issue for students in terms of location is your new home’s unfamiliarity rather than the area itself. If you can do anything to counteract this, even a little, then aside from any other benefit you’ll be less psychologically vulnerable and thus a harder target, which leads us nicely to the next section…
3) Psychology and Mindset:
Personal security and self-protection as a whole are very much concerned with psychological concepts. Of course, if you’re in an actual combative situation then you probably don’t have much time to test your psychoanalytical skills, but an awareness of some simple psychological patterns in violent crime is important. It is also important to understand yourself and your psychological situation (as well as you can) to better approach your personal security.
The first understanding is that many students are vulnerable, especially at the beginning of the year and at key times such as exam weeks or essay deadlines. For a lot of them, it’s the first time they’ve spent any significant period of time away from home and is the first time they’ve had to do a lot of things for themselves. This kind of situation can often lead to feelings of vulnerability and stress, which in turn can become evident in the way you carry yourself when walking, the way you talk and your general body language. Criminals will often look for signs of vulnerability when selecting a victim, so be aware that this can be a personal security issue. The more aware and confident you look, the harder a target you can seem and thus become more offputting in a victim-selection process.
Distraction, busyness and academic stress are other factors. Given the feeling of being ‘at home’ on and around campus that many students enjoy, it’s common for students in particular to let their guard down when out and about around their new city. Walking around with earphones in means you can’t hear what’s going on around you, which applies to general hazards such as traffic as well as criminal and combative hazards. Having your hood up limits some of your peripheral vision, especially at the sides. Bear this in mind when walking around. The more you limit your senses and distract yourself the more easily victimisable you make yourself. This can often stem from the academic stress of university courses, as being busy often begets distraction. You see it all the time – students park up at the library, slam their door shut and rush around campus trying to get everything done as quickly as possible because of a deadline or something else they need to get done while they’re out. Now, rushing around in itself is of course necessary at times and can’t realistically be avoided. What can be avoided is letting our guards down while we do it. Instead of getting the kind of objective-based tunnel vision that can often occur when we’re in a rush, make a concerted effort to maintain focus on what’s around you visually and aurally. Otherwise, when you’re in a rush it can be that bit easier to miss something. This wiki from Thestudentroom.co.uk also advises:
Have your keys ready before you reach your door, in order to make sure you can let yourself straight into your building. Make sure the door locks behind you.
One student I interviewed said: ‘I have known people to say to me: “I put my headphones in because I’m scared so I can’t hear things”’ – this kind of action is when fear and distraction overcomes rationality and logic. Don’t give in to this way of thinking! It will not help you.
When starting at a new university (generally speaking anyway) a student’s social circle suddenly, and vastly, increases in size and complexity. All of a sudden instead of knowing people mostly from their local area and associated surrounding areas, you typically might know people from cities you’ve never been to and places you’ve never heard of from all over the country, as well as people from other countries too. While this change in social structures can be a wonderful and rewarding experience for many, for some it can have the opposite effect – a feeling of isolation. The clichéd expression of feeling lonely in a crowd applies here, and unfortunately many of us will know someone at university who feels this isolation to some degree. This is something that a would-be victimising criminal may look for and manipulate.
To try and counteract this, avoid isolation. This article by Dorset Police on a campaign called ‘Operation Protect: Sexual Violence’ advises:
- Staying with friends and looking after each other;
- Getting a bus or licensed taxi home;
- Don’t walk home alone or with someone you hardly know; and
- Don’t drink to the extent that affects your judgement.
When getting a taxi, I highly recommend you bear in mind these 8 crucial considerations when doing so.
Peer pressure is possibly the worst aspect within this loose, fuzzy box of ideas I’ve called ‘Social’. Peer pressure can be positive as well as negative – friends can influence each other to do good things, such as volunteering or charity work, as it gives the positive feedback and inclusion within a group and people (generally) look for. Friends and peers of all kinds can, and usually are, profoundly positive in their influence on each others’ lives. However, according to this article by Kidshealth.org, peer pressure can also be a negative influence on an individual, their feelings and their actions. Here are a couple of pieces of advice from there that are applicable to university students:
Listen to your gut. If you feel uncomfortable, even if your friends seem to be OK with what’s going on, it means that something about the situation is wrong for you. This kind of decision-making is part of becoming self-reliant and learning more about who you are.
Plan for possible pressure situations. If you’d like to go to a party but you believe you may be offered alcohol or drugs there, think ahead about how you’ll handle this challenge. Decide ahead of time — and even rehearse — what you’ll say and do. Learn a few tricks. If you’re holding a bottle of water or a can of soda, for instance, you’re less likely to be offered a drink you don’t want.
Learn to feel comfortable saying “no.” With good friends you should never have to offer an explanation or apology. But if you feel you need an excuse for, say, turning down a drink or smoke, think up a few lines you can use casually. You can always say, “No, thanks, I’ve got a belt test in karate next week and I’m in training,” or “No way — my uncle just died of cirrhosis and I’m not even looking at any booze.”
Hang with people who feel the same way you do. Choose friends who will speak up with you when you’re in need of moral support, and be quick to speak up for a friend in the same way. If you’re hearing that little voice telling you a situation’s not right, chances are others hear it, too. Just having one other person stand with you against peer pressure makes it much easier for both people to resist.
Here is a very well-made video written by Megan Elliott and directed by Zam Salim – powered by ChildLine – depicting one possible kind of situation involving peer pressure:
What came across to me when talking to various students of various universities on the matter of self-protection and personal security at university most pressingly is the need to lock doors. Due to peer pressure, many don’t lock their doors, which is a serious issue for personal security. At one end of the scale, not locking your door leaves you open to practical jokes and trolling and at the other end, it provides an opportunity for theft, information-gathering or even ambush. While the idea of not needing to lock your door because of trusting the people you live with is a very nice gesture in a perfect, peaceful utopia where everyone cares about everyone else, the unfortunate reality is that not everyone cares about everyone else (or I’d be looking for a different job!) and so really (as this article advises too) you must lock your door, even if you’re not leaving your room for long at all. My way of remembering this is simple: if it’s unlocked, consider it open. Whenever you shut your door, if you haven’t locked it then remember how quickly, quietly and easily anyone else can open it.
I’ll stop going on about that now. Just lock your door.
If Anything Does Happen:
Now, please don’t read this article and become paranoid. The distinction between paranoia and readiness is important, and this article isn’t for a moment trying to engender fear or paranoia in anyone. I’m not saying that it’s at all likely that something bad should happen to you at university, or that you should expect it, just that you should consider the possibility of such an occurrence and be ready for it if it were to happen.
If something does happen, it is important that you contact the police immediately. If it’s an emergency (read: if someone’s in danger at all or could be) then dial 999. If it’s not an emergency (read: nobody is in danger from the incident) then call the police non-emergency number at 101. You can call that for questions and advice as well and in my experience they’ve been very helpful and approachable. There’s some more information on 101 here.
The police have victim support schemes, and many universities also have counselling and support available too, so if you have any issues arising from an incident then you’re not alone – seek out some help, because it’s there and ready for you if you need it.
If you’ve been a victim of sexual assault, you could get in touch with Rapecrisis here and they may be able to help you, and the NHS has some advice here for people who have been involved in such incidents.
The Last Bit:
So that’s a few ideas around the area of personal security for students. Now please don’t take this article as an all-encompassing attempt to make you absolutely threatproof at university, but I hope it has been a little more useful than a brief and trite offhand list of simple tips. Don’t try to memorise a series of tips, but rather adopt the mindset of readiness (not paranoia) that these ideas come from and take your personal security seriously. If you can strike the balance with this, it becomes so easy as to be second-nature and doesn’t stop you having a good time, which is also important!
Images courtesy of Luke Stolada, Michael Jastremski and Darren Hester
‘hells bells austin tx 2002’ found at http://openphoto.net/volumes/mike/openphoto_dot_net/2002_3_20_175_22_OPL.jpg
’Rusty Chain’ found at http://openphoto.net/volumes/PPDigital/20040401/opl_img-0189.jpg
Untitled photo found at http://openphoto.net/volumes/mike/20080206/openphotonet_IMG_0328.JPG,