Warning: Colleges may be responsible for Airbnb, Uber safety

Safety expert says shared services economy, ease of travel present new safety challenges for colleges and universities.

Gaining Ground

Hutton, who says he has a personal investment in higher education safety since both of his sons went on college-vetted student abroad programs, also volunteered for work with the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC). Hutton was part of an OSAC committee that worked with state-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academic constituents. The committee was tasked with starting a conversation on what safety standards in higher education should look like.

And while the recent work on these standards by the OSAC committee is more a clearinghouse to begin a conversation rather than a specific outline, a number of thought leaders emerged on the subject of 21st century higher education safety standards, said Hutton.

But until a more formalized standards outline exists, Hutton says all institutions interested in being proactive should adhere to these characteristics of a best practice environment:

  1. Set campus and student safety policies, processes and procedures to live by.
  2. It is important for the institution to have a professional look at strategic risk-assessment, especially for travel abroad programs. These professionals should assess the risk environment geographically as well (natural disasters, terrorism, air quality, and more for an all-hazards approach). These safety and risk-assessment professionals shouldn’t be professors who lead the abroad programs, even though Hutton says this is what often occurs.
  3. Focus on training and communication that touches students directly. This means that institutions should set up a framework for sharing best practices in personal safety with students. Sharing also means making sure students understand the risks involved in the shared services economy.
  4. The institution should also strive for a process that students can use to communicate in an emergency, or an emergency response plan.

“If the institution holds up a mirror to their abroad program, it should reflect these four elements,” he emphasized.

When asked what specific tactics forward-looking institutions should include for students using shared economy services, especially abroad, Hutton explained that “redundancy is key.”

For instance, especially in travel abroad circumstances, the student may be urged to call the local police, but there could be a language barrier. Therefore, the institution should have an international (and national) hotline students can call. An emergency tracker is also good, he noted, even if that may sound like a stretch.

“The emergency tracker could be a great idea, especially for students in high-risk countries. For example, an archaeology student studying in the Middle East could have a transmitter to relay an emergency message to satellite geolocation technology.”

Hutton explained that colleges and universities should also make clear to students traveling abroad that social media shouldn’t be the first technology to send a message of help, because some countries can block social media. However, texting can usually get through on a consistent basis.

“It’s imperative for institutions to examine ‘What’s going on in your near and what’s going on in your far;” meaning what’s going on in our program, but what’s also going on in the program’s political environment and shared services environment.”