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CONNECTING AND PROTECTING YOUR CAMPUS: THE BACK TO SCHOOL SPECIAL

The Echosec Team September 8, 2015 OSINT, Event Monitoring, Geofencing

For millions of students across North America, September marks the end of summer and the return to school. Thousands of students will be flooding to hundreds of campuses. Many will be starting a new chapter in their lives and even more will be returning to continue their studies.

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This time of year also means it’s back to work for thousands of professors and staff members tasked with educating students, young and old. Perhaps just as important as educating students, school administrations will have the massive responsibility of keeping students safe and happy during their time on campus.

Incidents of violence and criminal activity on campus have been fairly high across the US in the last few years. In this Back To School Special we will look at the current landscape of campus safety and discuss how school administrations can make their campus safer.

Students and Social Media

If you’ve ever spent time with students, this situation probably isn’t unfamiliar to you:

Connecting and Protecting Your Campus: The Back To School Special

The average college student spends 8 to 10 hours on their cell phone per day; a statistic that researcher James Roberts described as “astounding” in this Baylor University article. Some students even reported becoming agitated when their cell phone is not in sight and 60% of participants said they “may be addicted to their cell phone.” You don’t say! But what are students doing on their cell phones?

89% of adults aged 18-29 use some form of social networking according to a Pew Internet Research article. An ever-growing social media landscape has resulted in more and more platforms people can use to share and connect. Apps like Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp are becoming more popular than Facebook among college-aged students. The same is true for their high school counterparts. Many high school students only use Facebook to “stay in touch with older relations, for whom it remains popular.” The trend is towards quicker, simpler and more visually appealing apps.

Students at high school and post-secondary schools are constantly on their phones and love sharing things across a number of social media platforms. Lots of the information that students are sharing is publicly available and can be reviewed for security and safety purposes by a school’s administration.

Campus Security and Student Safety: The Current Landscape

Student safety should be a top priority of every educational institution. 95% of American universities have a formal Campus Security Team (source). Many of these teams are well funded and effective, but protecting tens of thousands of students is no small task. Below are the numbers on criminal offences and arrests that happened in the US in colleges and universities with residential facilities.

Connecting and Protecting Your Campus: The Back To School Special

In 2013 there were thousands of Aggravated Assaults, Robberies and Sex Offences on American university campuses (source). There were tens of thousands of Liquor Law and Drug Abuse Violations, and over a thousand Weapon Possession Charges. Considering these events happened over the course of a year and across hundreds of campuses, the numbers are actually not too high. But they can be better.

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What can schools do?

Social media is a great way to connect with friends, share your thoughts, and post pictures of your cat Mittens (we know, you named it when you were a kid). Most social media posts are fun and usually harmless, but there are times when students, and even staff members, can run into trouble from sharing too much. Keeping an eye on the social media coming from a campus can help the administrative team protect students. Here’s how:

Join the conversation

Connect with the students! Encourage students to follow a campus account that offers helpful tips and communicates with students. Interact with students through their accounts that follow you by liking or re-posting relevant things. Remind students of the simple things they can do to keep themselves and their friends safe, like walking in groups, trusting their intuition and familiarizing themselves with their surroundings.

Help Students Help Themselves

On the flip side, if administration spots something potentially harmful, they can discreetly reach out and suggest the individual remove or edit their public post. New students and staff members often proudly post a photo of their school ID card without realizing the trouble they could be causing themselves.

Social media offers an informal channel to quietly address issues that may not need to be escalated to the authorities. [Tweet this]

A student or staff ID card is the social insurance number of your university life. The ID number on the card is the one thing that makes you unique within the school’s system and if that falls into the wrong hands, that individual may be able to get access to your personal information within the school’s system.

Below are a few examples we found using Echosec. All of these example posts have been edited to protect the privacy of the original posters.

Connecting and Protecting Your Campus: The Back To School Special

Student at the University of British Columbia

Connecting and Protecting Your Campus: The Back To School Special

Graduate Student at the University of Toronto

 

Connecting and Protecting Your Campus: The Back To School Special

Staff at the University of Texas - Austin

 

Here is a post from a Canadian University campus where an individual shared her bank card information:

Connecting and Protecting Your Campus: The Back To School Special

Posting any personal banking information on a public platform could make you an easy target for anyone trying to access your online banking or personal information.

Recently, a frat house sparked outrage on social media for inappropriate banners being hung from their balcony. The residents claimed they didn’t mean to offend anyone, but their actions resulted in the fraternity being suspended. This PR fiasco could have been avoided had the University advised the residents to take down the posts and the banners via social media.

Social media offers an informal channel to quietly address issues that don’t necessarily need to be escalated to the authorities. A simple tap on the shoulder and nudge in the right direction from the University could prevent big problems for students posting this kind of seemingly harmless content.

Preventing Campus Crime

One technique for protecting a campus is to keep an eye on social media using a social media monitoring tool. Identifying events that could escalate into a dangerous situation over social media allows security teams to effectively deploy resources exactly where they are needed.

The school administration probably doesn’t care about how many Jell-O shots students are doing on a Tuesday. [Tweet this]

Incidents of theft and burglary can be investigated more effectively if you have the ability to search through historical, and public, social media posts, based on a location. If a theft is reported in a given area with an estimated time range, security teams can use a social media monitoring platform to check within those bounds to identify persons of interest and get a sense of what was happening at the time. This drastically improves the odds of lost items being found.

The right communication from campus social media accounts is crucial in maintaining good relationships with the student body. Clarify that campus security knows students are going to drink and party on campus, but that’s not what you're monitoring for. What the campus security cares about are acts of violence, serious criminal activity, and situations that could result in harm to students or the campus itself. Students should be encouraged to have a presence on social media and feel assured that their safety is a top priority of the school. In most cases, the school administration doesn’t care about how many Jell-O shots students are doing on a Tuesday.

Social Media Monitoring Platform?

Social media monitoring platforms are tools that allow users to search across public social media based on keyword, username, and even location.

Location-based social media search tools are have quickly become popular among marketing, operations, and security professionals. For the uninitiated, this is a quick summary of how it works: draw a box on a map and watch all the publicly available, geo-tagged social media posts from that area appear. It’s that simple.

It’s important to note that all posts that return from a search are publicly available and geo-tagged. The results returned are only what social media users choose to display publicly.

Wrapping Up

Ensuring the safety and well-being of an entire student body and campus is an enormous task. School administrations should be taking advantage of every possible avenue where they can connect to students and offer help where appropriate. These avenues include a large number of social media platforms that students use most. Using a social media monitoring tool, a campus security team can be assured that they are doing everything they can to keep students safe. When used correctly, these tools can manage PR disasters, diffuse escalating situations, prevent crime, and in some cases, save lives.

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