As universities question outdated blue light system, GW must expand safety measures

College campuses across the country are outfitted with bases where students can click a small button and call for help from the campus or local police. These systems, called blue light systems, are touted as a way to keep students safe – especially on urban campuses like GW.

But as technology advances, universities are grappling with whether a system from nearly three decades ago is adequate to keep students safe.

More than three dozen blue light stations are scattered throughout campus, which can help make students, administrators and faculty feel safe, especially late at night. But these safety measures merely give the illusion of safety and are no longer practical. Considering that the system is old and there are more effective solutions available, the University must invest in other security measures in addition to the blue light system.

Darrell Darnell, the senior associate vice president for safety and security, said GW likes “redundancy when it comes to campus safety” and therefore employs multiple security measures including closed-circuit cameras, blue light emergency phones and officer bike and foot patrols, among other security tactics.

Cartoon by Margaret Grobowski

But GW needs to step these measures up to fully protect students.

As students walk around with smartphones that can do far more than call 911, a stationary system that calls the police feels archaic. The system was implemented in the ’90s and officials have confirmed that they have seen a decrease in the system’s use over the years.

While it cannot hurt to have the blue light system installed around campus, GW advertises the service to both current and prospective students as one of its main methods of security but it must focus its resources on other methods of security and stop selling the service as a way to keep students safe.

In recent years, the University has made an effort to expand its security measures, including rolling out an app called GW PAL. The app works like a mobile blue light in students’ pockets and allows users to call the police, call 4-RIDE and find out when the sun will set so they can avoid walking alone in the dark.

While the app is a strong step in the right direction, the University can continue advertising this option to students beyond first-year orientation and bolster other means of security.

The simplest way to make students safer on campus is to ensure GW Police Department officers are fully trained and present so students know there is someone around to help should a dangerous situation arise. GWPD’s top two leaders both resigned suddenly last year and the department restructured, which experts said could improve oversight in the department, but some students called for increased transparency but it is still unclear how this will affect the department.

However, while an increased police presence could mitigate some issues and make some students feel more at ease, over-policing is a huge issue as well and some students may be uncomfortable with an increased presence of officers. While these concerns are valid, bad policing is more of a problem than over-policing, and if the University properly trains its officers this solution could improve security and increase student trust in GWPD.

The University is situated in a city so street lights line the pathways on campus, but installing floodlights on the side of buildings in poorly lit alleyways could increase students awareness of what is going on around them at night and help them stay safe. Some areas of campus already have this, but expanding the lights could help make all of the community feel safer.

GW also already offers services to drive students around campus late at night, but both students and drivers employed to run the service have spoken out to call 4-RIDE ineffective. Drivers said the outdated system causes them to be late, so improving the technology used to run the system would also ensure the service actually keeps students safe.

In addition to the 4-RIDE service, GW could follow the lead of universities – including one of its peer schools the University of Southern California – by partnering with Lyft or Uber to offer free trips late at night.

GW has also already made steps toward expanding building access to students, and it should continue that work to increase safety. The University granted freshmen tap access to other freshman residence halls in an effort to build a community among first-year students, but this is a safety improvement as well. Students can now wait inside buildings for rides or could tap into a nearby residence hall in case of an emergency – and GW should give this option to all students to further spread the benefits.

Relying on ineffective blue lights can’t make students safer and implying that the lights improve security on campus is misleading to prospective students and parents.

Safety is the one service that GW must provide students that has immeasurably high consequences. GW must keep students safe and that requires expanding the most up-to-date resources for students while maintaining non-technology based safety measures as well. By expanding ride services, keeping campus well lit, providing tap access to all campus buildings and bolstering a support GWPD force, the University can provide real safety improvements to students and move forward from an outdated system.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Renee Pineda and contributing opinions editor Kiran Hoeffner-Shah based on conversations with The Hatchet’s editorial board, which is composed of managing editor Matt Cullen, contributing social media director Zach Slotkin, managing director Elise Zaidi, sports editor Barbara Alberts and culture editor Lindsay Paulen.

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