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August 14, 2015
By Sarah Brown
Fairfax, Va.

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A new campus-safety tool for colleges is being touted by some administrators and experts as a unique strategy for helping every higher-education institution understand and carry out best practices on issues like alcohol, hazing, and sexual violence.

The effort is part of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative, which made its debut here on Thursday at George Mason University. The self-assessment tool is free for colleges, and involves a series of confidential surveys that cover nine “focus areas.” The alcohol-and-other-drugs survey asks, for instance, whether parents are notified when a student violates a college’s alcohol policies, and whether campus police departments collaborate with local law enforcement in combating drunken driving.

Once at least 100 colleges have completed the assessments, aggregate data will be compiled from the responses, divided up by institutional size and type, and published on the project’s website as a comparison tool for colleges, as well as students and parents.

The VTV Family Outreach Foundation, established in the aftermath of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, has sponsored the effort, which began to take shape three years ago. A team of 10 campus-safety and legal experts volunteered dozens of hours to work on the project.

At first a rating system was planned, but that idea was dropped in favor of an approach centered on helping colleges, said Peter F. Lake, a law professor at Stetson University and chairman of the council that developed the surveys.

Officials at several colleges that participated in a pilot of the program say the tool makes a lot of sense. They called it relatively easy to use, free, and helpful. If a college signs up, its staff members in the relevant safety fields — such as an alcohol-abuse counselor or the police chief — complete that particular survey. A senior administrator oversees the effort.

S. Daniel Carter, director of the project and a longtime campus-safety advocate, said the assessment could be completed “in as little as half a day.”

The University of Florida, one of the pilot colleges, took a bit longer, convening teams that included faculty members, students, and parents to work on each survey.

The university has about 50,000 students, and the campus was already up to speed on most of the resources and procedures outlined in the surveys, said Jen Day Shaw, the institution’s associate vice president and dean of students.

Given Florida’s size, she said, “our biggest challenge area is communication.” The surveys, Ms. Shaw said, helped bring people together from largely segregated campus departments to talk about each question and to iron out policy inconsistencies across the university.

The assessment can assist large public universities as well as small private colleges, Mr. Carter added. “We’re not saying, Hire X more counselors, when an institution might not be able to do that,” he said. “We’re saying, Look at what mental-health resources you’re able to provide and maximize that, or work with community resources to make sure your campus has what it needs.”

What remains to be seen is how much of an impact the tool will have in the broader landscape of higher education. Dozens of consulting firms already offer colleges checklists and suggestions on, for instance, meeting campus-safety benchmarks for combating alcohol abuse or complying with mounting federal and state regulations on sexual assault.

But the surveys are different, Mr. Lake said, because consultants aren’t imposing information on colleges and charging a fee. College officials will have to teach themselves, he said, and then make an informed pitch to institutional leaders about where to devote more funding and resources.

Mr. Carter emphasized that the project would encourage colleges to move past a compliance-centered culture and simply meet minimum standards.

As of Thursday morning, a few hours after the surveys went live, three dozen colleges had signed up. Ms. Shaw said she was encouraging the State University System of Florida’s institutions to take the assessment.

Mr. Carter said he was not worried about colleges’ buying in. They are “hungry” for such assistance to improve safety on the campus, he said, and the ultimate goal is to make the assessments “as universal as anything in higher education.”