Making Classrooms Safe in College – Again?
by Sheryl L. Szeinbach, PhD, MS, BSPharm
On a scale from 1 to 100 how safe are students, staff, and faculty in a typical college environment? For example, a colleague was delivering a lecture to a large classroom of about 100 students. Ideas were flowing, students were listening, and birds were singing until one of the students, sitting in the middle of the class, decided to get up from her chair and leave. Not subtly, she bolted from her seat and just stood there - dazed and confused. There was silence; students stared at their classmate, then at the professor. What do we do? What do we do? To reach the aisle, the student plowed over her classmates and immediately ran out of the classroom. Was this a unique event? No, it happened about twice a month for no apparent reason.
When class ended, a couple of students explained to the professor that this student was also in their chemistry class. After completing an exam, this student always refused to turn in her exam. The only way to get the exam was for faculty members to chase her down the hall, corner her inside one of the laboratories, and demand that the exam be turned in for grading. Despite this behavior, one student attempted to defend her by saying: “Don’t worry she’s probably just like the rest of us.” Is she?
A new faculty member arriving at her office one morning noticed a young man, clearly not a student, approaching her from the hallway. He walked up to her and asked to use the phone. With a phone at each end of the hallway, this request seemed strange as she thought about all the phones in the world and why he wanted to use the phone in this office. She recalled the encounter vividly, along with the hair standing up on the back of her neck, as she told the young man there was no phone in this office. Fortunately, he turned around and walked away from her.
On another occasion, a faculty member thought that unusual noises down the hall were from a night class called “creative construction.” The next day, a colleague explained that the noises came from someone breaking into the vending machines with a sledgehammer.
The college admission process may be challenging, but access to our colleges is easy. Doors are rarely locked, some doors are propped open during weekends, windows are left open, and keys are copied for use by others. Besides sports, major attractions during the fall season are the visitors that walk through the halls to case the building while classes are in session; yet no security measures are ever implemented.
Given the threats on campus from shooters, criminals, bombers, and chemicals, perhaps the events described previously are not serious. Nonetheless, with respect to safety, the college environment has changed forever. In the future, instead of simple questions relating to career goals and hobbies, students can expect to undergo psychological evaluation. Like airport security, and everything else, we can expect screening devices, bar-coded identification cards, barbed-wire fences, and other monitoring systems to become more commonplace in colleges. In fact, some colleges have already implemented these measures as well as implemented background checks during the hiring process. What can we learn from this? Perhaps, there is no substitute for a safe college environment.