Living in residence halls presents opportunities for students to engage with the campus and take part in learning opportunities outside the classroom. But residence halls also present safety challenges. “This is the most critical area we want to keep safe,” said Rhonda L. Harris, assistant vice president of public safety and chief of police at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

The number of burglaries in residence halls at ODU has dropped by nearly 67 percent since 2012, when Harris became police chief. And burglaries are just one of many crimes that can occur in residential areas. Harris has led a multitiered approach to residence hall safety that includes security measures, policies, and education.

  • Security measures. Residence hall access is controlled by swipe cards. Plus, ODU has added staff in the lobby of each hall. Many of those staff members are students, including resident assistants. They provide a visual deterrence to individuals who shouldn't be in the building and speak to people who look like they don't belong there, Harris said. They also remind students of the policies regarding bringing guests into the building.After hours, guests must sign in as they enter.The residence hall windows have security screens to prevent anyone from going in through a window, Harris said. If a screen were removed, it would be evident to security patrols, and a maintenance call would be required to put it back in, Harris said.If there's reason to believe that someone gained unauthorized access to a residence hall, security officers can review video footage to find out what the person looked like and which way they went. The cameras aren't monitored in real time, but the video is stored and can be easily accessed when needed, Harris said. Two major changes Harris has made since 2012 are changing the locking mechanisms on individual rooms or apartments and increasing security patrols in the evening. The door to each residential unit now locks automatically when it is closed, Harris said. A common scenario for theft is that a student has a visitor who brings a friend. The friend gets bored and starts shaking doorknobs. With the changed locking mechanisms, that strategy doesn't result in entry, Harris said. The increased security patrols around the residence halls in the evenings mean that officers can spot situations before problems occur. If they see people congregating outside a residence hall, they make contact with those people and encourage those who don't need to enter the building to move along.
  • Policies. Visitation policies help control who is in the residence halls and when they can be there. Students who wish to have overnight guests must make arrangements in advance with the residence hall staff. Exceptions can be made in case of emergency, or if a guest, say a younger sibling, arrives by surprise, Harris said. But in most cases, if the proper arrangements have not been made, guests are encouraged to find other places to sleep, Harris said. The goal to having some flexibility is to keep the bad people out, but to support a good quality of life for the students living in the residence hall, she said.Guests in the building after a certain time must be signed in.And policies limit the number of guests that can be present in a room, apartment, or bedroom in an apartment.
  • Education. “The university has done a great job of creating a community environment so people feel responsibility for other people,” Harris said. The focus is on helping students make smart decisions about safety.

Education about campus safety starts with the campus tour, she said. Once students are admitted, they can attend a preview program where they hear about safety from the campus police, and students who plan to live in residence halls also hear about it from the residence hall staff.

Harris meets with the director of housing and residence life every month. Some of Harris' staff members meet regularly with other members of that department. Police officers train resident assistants at the beginning of each academic year. They cover everything from building access to the Clery Act to active shooter response, Harris said.

The residence hall staff members conduct ongoing training with the students. Harris also partners with student government to provide safety training.

Engage community with a safety app

“Safety is everyone's responsibility,” Harris said. That's a key message of education efforts at the university, she said. Helping young people understand their role in creating a safe campus is a difficult but important task, she added.

The campus adopted the LiveSafe app that enables students to text tips to the police department. They can be anonymous if they wish, she said. The app has been really helpful, Harris said. Students love it and feel comfortable using it, she added. For example, a student might text “There are a couple of guys hanging by this door.” The text goes straight to dispatch and to all the command staff in Harris' unit.

Harris was a little hesitant to implement the app because it was a big investment and she didn't know how students would respond to it. But it has been very effective, she said.

Ensure residence hall safety by preventing ‘tailgating’

Controlling access to your campus buildings is an important part of campus safety. And that is especially true when it comes to residence halls. Unauthorized people gaining access to a building can create liability issues for your institution when thefts or criminal mischief occur, said Dan Pascale, vice president and partner at Margolis Healy. But controlled access is most important for residence halls because domestic violence and assault are most likely to occur in these buildings that students call home.

Preventing “tailgating” is an important step to keeping residence halls safe. Tailgating occurs when multiple people enter a building using one identification card or other form of access. For example, one student might swipe in and then pass the card back to others. Or students might toss their card out the window to a guest. Some systems keep the same card from being used repeatedly during a set time frame, Pascale said. And some institutions have started using biometrics to control access.

A combination of methods for controlling access works best, Pascale said. For example, security measures might include a single point of entry with electronic access, a physical presence to determine that all members of a group entering together should be in the building, and an optical turnstile.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution to residence hall security, but the most effective access control systems for residence halls include the following elements, according to Pascale:

  • Redundancy in security measures, including technology and personnel. During busy times, technology can fail, and individuals tasked with controlling access can make mistakes. The institutions Pascale has observed having difficulties with residence hall access “put all their eggs in one basket,” relying on one measure to control access.
  • Enforcement of policies. Students need to know the institution takes residence hall security seriously.
  • Education about safety. Among other measures, posters visible just inside the entrance should remind students of the policy for residence hall access.

Some security measures can be expensive. The key is to find a balance that enables reasonable spending for the most effective combination of measures, Pascale said. Institutions he has worked with have improved their residence hall access considerably with low-cost policy enforcement and education efforts.

Email Dan Pascale at Email Rhonda L. Harris at