By Mary Kate McGrath - June 8, 2020
Over the last several months, widespread protests have become common in major cities across the United States. In April, groups began protesting lockdown orders caused by the coronavirus pandemic, staging protests at state houses and city centers. Then, in late May, many protests took to the street to speak out against racial injustice in the United States, raising difficult questions for state and local leaders about effective de-escalation tactics.
Leaders in higher education might be concerned with how best to communicate with students, faculty, or staff amid this period of unrest, and for those institutions positioned in the immediate vicinity of protests, how best to respond.
One important note for campus safety management is that the majority of students, faculty, or staff are no longer on campus due to COVID-19. In March, colleges and universities across the United States halted in-person classes, canceled all on-campus events, shuttered facilities and urged students to return home. Epidemiologists largely agree that certain campus conditions - such as dormitories or open-buffets in dining halls - make the risk of spreading COVID-19 much higher. For the most part, students and faculty are attending classes off campus, and administrative workers are remote. But some essential workers remain on campus, and even amid shutdowns, emergency managers should assure that facilities are secure.
Even with much of the community moved off-campus, that does not mean that college or university leaders shouldn’t have a plan in place to manage campus response during this time. It’s critical that frequent updates and communication is offered to those still living in college or university housing, or essential workers required to be on campus. Expanding communications to accommodate both the campus community and surrounding residents can also allow higher education leaders to better manage building security and other safety concerns.
First, the college president or other university leaders should use a mass notification system to communicate the institution’s position amid the protests to students, faculty, or staff. For example, leaders may want to reaffirm the institutions position on inclusion, and express solidarity with those protesting racial inequities in the United States. For students who might be feeling additional stress or trauma due to the protests and ongoing conversations about racism, offer resources available through the college or university, such as counseling through a campus health center, can be a show of solidarity. Many students might also be wondering what the college or university’s commitment will be to assuring their education is one characterized by equity and safety, so be sure to communicate any changes to protocol on campus in response to the current moment.
Using your mass notification system to communicate internally with security and staff is also extremely important. Although many of the protests across the U.S. have been peaceful, some have taken a turn to violence and destruction. To ensure your college or university campus remains safe from vandalism, communicating with college security or campus police departments can be useful in protecting campus libraries, dormitories, and other school buildings. Higher education leaders can also leverage other security technologies they may have in place remotely, such as video security systems, motion sensors, and automatic door locks to monitor campus safety.
Campus safety teams must also be mindful that while most students departed following the coronavirus pandemic, that does not necessarily mean there are no community members living or working on or around campus. Many students experiencing housing insecurity, foreign students unable to return home, or other individuals unable to evacuate might still be living in campus housing. Additionally, campus staff, from landscapers to patrol officers, are still in and around campus, and must be updated about the situation as it develops.
Colleges or universities should communicate with these individuals proactively - using targeted notifications, inform anyone who might be in the proximity of the campus of ongoing protests. The information may be critical for those moving around on campus, especially as public health experts have concerns that large crowds and putting large numbers of protestors in jails could result in an uptick of coronavirus cases.
SMS Opt-In can also be a valuable tool for campus safety managers. For faculty, students, or staff who remain on campus and are in the immediate area, a specific keyword can be set to provide relevant information. SMS Opt-In provides a way to expand access to relevant information, such as if curfews are in place, and should an emergency situation occur, students or locals will know what to do to get to safety and minimize the damage. Protestors can also opt-in for the information, receiving relevant information about campus closures. People can avoid college or university campuses on routes, especially if park areas, facilities, or other parts of the campus are closed to the public.
It is inevitable that colleges and universities often find themselves homes to protests. Being prepared to manage crowd safety, including critical de-escalation strategies, must be a part of training for campus officials. If not already part of the school’s safety protocol, an ability to defuse and deescalate large crowds is essential. By leveraging a mass notification system, campus leaders can reaffirm their commitment to students and their safety, ensure minimal confusion, and prepare to manage ongoing protests for the future.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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