Shaping Campus Safety Perceptions

Many complex factors contribute to the overall perception of safety on a college campus. Some of those contributing factors, such as the individual personal characteristics of students, are not within campus safety’s control. Other factors, like those that involve the contextual features of a campus, can and should be manipulated to create a more positive sense of safety for students and faculty.

While perceptions are not necessarily an indicator of the actual level of danger on a campus, it’s still necessary that schools realize the importance of students feeling safe in addition to actually being safe. Just as true danger is a threat to people’s physical health, perceived threat can negatively affect mental and emotional health. By ensuring that students have a great sense of safety and security, educational and personal success can better thrive. A few major examples of the factors that can be modified to improve safety perceptions include the physical layout of the campus, visibility of police officers, lighting, and even foliage.

Physical Features

Visual upkeep and a happy image are as important on a school campus as with any community. Rundown and unkempt buildings give a sense of desolation and lack of protection. Just as the “broken window” technique helped increase a sense of safety in New York City during the 1990s, the same approach applies here. The sight of one broken window can lead people to break more windows, because it appears that the area is uncared for anyway. Moreover, campus layout designs that present many obstructions to visibility, versus having more open spaces, also diminish sense of safety.


Campuses use various technological tools for safety, like video surveillance, swipe entry cards, emergency text message notification, and blue light emergency phone systems. Even more innovative uses of technology are possible now with the advent of smartphones. With use among students expecting to reach nearly 80% in 2013, smartphones are a clear source for continued advancement in safety measures.

Visibility of Police Officers

A lack of police presence can also increase perceptions of danger. Patrolling around campus, speaking at orientations, and visiting classes to give presentations all help to increase the awareness of police on campus. Often, these are opportunities to build rapport, trust, and connect with students on a first name basis. While a strong physical presence is one of the most effective ways to build outreach, using e-mail (sparingly, outside of real emergencies) and social media channels also helps keep law enforcement virtually engaged.


Not surprisingly, low levels of light heighten a sense of fear and increase temptation for deviant behavior. Campuses should have high degrees of illumination to both increase a sense of safety and reduce real opportunities for crime. Good lighting should avoid glare, minimize dark areas, and stay consistently lit, enabling students to clearly assess surroundings for greater general awareness.


Aside from the aesthetic value, the growth and density of foliage also helps shape perceptions of safety. As with rundown infrastructure, vegetation that is overgrown and unmaintained blocks views into spaces and gives the impression that the area is unmanaged and unsafe. One way to tackle dowdy foliage is by creating student committees. At Washington University, a tree advisory committee helped get them recognized for their tree upkeep.

Schools should also understand how the personal backgrounds of students affect their perceptions. With age for instance, it should be understood that today’s college students grew up through a series of major media-intensive school shootings that have potentially shaped some of their attitudes on school safety. As a result, their associated fear could be driven more from emotional force rather than rational, calculated risk. Regarding gender, many studies have found that females are more likely to be fearful than males on college campuses. These results are not surprising as females are most often the targets of sexual assault. As far as nationality, recent news has indicated that some foreign students are fearful of studying abroad in the United States because of gun violence. One tragic example is the death of Chinese graduate student Lingzi Lu in the Boston Marathon bombings. The event caused foreigners’ perceptions of safety in the U.S. to stir again.

The intertwining of the various factors that influence perceptions of campus safety are undoubtedly complicated and can prove costly, but one important factor that helps mitigate student concerns is the support of caring teachers, parents, and other adults. When students feel they have more supportive adult role models available to them, they tend to perceive schools as being safer. In the effort of creating better perceptions on campus safety, this is at least one method, completely cost-free.