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Public Safety On Campus: There's An App For That

Castleton University students walking.
Courtesy of Castleton University
Students walking at Castleton University. No matter how many emergency phones are stationed around a college campus, the closest phone to a student is likely in their hand or pocket.

Castleton University is rolling out a new campus safety smartphone app. It's the second college in Vermont to employ an app connecting students directly to safety officials, as cell phones play an increasing role in colleges’ emergency communications. If a student feels unsafe on a college campus, there's likely an emergency phone nearby with a direct line to the school's public safety department. On many campuses, the phones are lit up in the night by bright blue lights.

These blue light systems have been around for decades. But when every student has a smartphone in their pocket, the blue light phones seem somewhat outdated. And today’s college students often avoid talking on the phone. They’re more comfortable with apps and text-based communications.

Emergency app on a smartphone.
Credit Courtesy of Castleton University
Castleton University's new campus safety app allows a user to check in with public safety, place an emergency call, or activate an emergency alert.

That's what led Castelton University to introduce a new smartphone app this semester. It lets students and other people on campus communicate in various ways with campus safety officials.

"This is a, you know, a way for public safety to make another connection with students – and faculty and staff – in a way that everyone’s comfortable with," said James Lambert, a Castleton University spokesperson. "Because most people these days are used to using phone apps and most of us have a phone on us all the time."

The app allows students to check-in with public safety if they're walking alone at night or in other situations when they're feeling unsafe. Students can also send out an emergency alert that lets security officers know they're in trouble, meanwhile triggering the phone's camera and microphone to start recording.

Most of Vermont’s college campuses use the blue light system, but so far only Castleton and St. Michael’s College in Colchester have the added security of a public safety app. St. Mike's students have access to an app called LiveSafe.

Senior Anna Tuttle said there are times when using the app feels like a better option then making a call.

"But using the LiveSafe app has been a more low-key way to be able to get help when necessary and make it less obvious," she said. "I'm able to get help, not just for me but for other people, in a way that I feel is less disturbing to the people around me and able to not really escalate the situation. 'Cause it just looks like I'm texting on my phone."

Tuttle said she's used the app in situations such as campus parties, when someone around her has become sick or she feels unsafe.

Douglas Babcock is Director of Public Safety at St. Michael's College. He demonstrated how the app might be used in a situation such as Tuttle described.

Man holding smartphone.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
St. Michael's College Director of Public Safety Douglas Babcock demonstrates the campus safety app used by students and others at the college.

"I'm out doing whatever I'm doing on campus," he said by way of a mock demonstration. "I see a concern and I open up my app and I hit 'report tips.' I type in my little message - you can attach a picture, a video, you can send a voice note - whatever you want to. You can send it anonymously and it will show you right now, 'send by Doug' or 'send anonymously.' ... And that quickly, we're notified that there's something going on."

Babcock said the anonymous feature can make using the app more appealing for students.

"We're able to text back and forth, without knowing who that person is but we can have a two-way communication," he explained. "And we've taken all sorts of concerns — people who are feeling like they may hurt themselves, you know parties, noise complaints, dogs, all sorts of things."

St. Michael's College also has over 200 security cameras on campus. But Babcock said students don't seem to have privacy concerns regarding the app or cameras. He said this generation of students has grown up with ever-present cameras and tracking technology.

"They all have one in their pocket and they're used to living a life that is on camera, that is big data," he said of his students. "There's not that mindset that this bad thing is going to happen. To be honest, the technology has already happened — it's a part of their history already."

Babcock said it used to be that cameras were largely controlled by institutions such as colleges and governments, but that dynamic has changed.

Ambulance at a fire station.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
St. Michael's College has its own volunteer fire department and rescue squad, in addition to its public safety department and dispatch center.

"With smartphones and social networks, that's no longer where that power is concentrated," he said. "And when everyone is running around with some piece of the power in their hands, the idea about the good or the harm that it can cause — the balance of that has shifted dramatically."

While public safety apps are only used on a couple of Vermont college campuses, most schools do make use of student phones as part of a campus-wide alert system. Those systems send out phone calls, emails and text messages in an emergency or in the case of weather events or school closures.

Castleton paid $2,250 for the app service, on top of its contract for the school's campus alert system.

The University of Vermont is likely to be the next Vermont campus to roll out a public safety app, possibly as soon as the fall semester.

Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
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