Safety is serious business at New Jersey's Montclair State University. Under a program put into place a few years ago, students carry special cell phones that signal campus police if something is wrong. Students set a code for a certain amount of time—say, the 15 minutes it takes to walk across campus at night. If they don't turn off the code within the allotted time, alarms go off at campus-police headquarters and cops begin tracking the students' whereabouts using the phones' GPS locators. So far, all the emergency signals have been false alarms set off when a student has forgotten to turn off the device in time, says Paul Cell, chief of police at Montclair State. But if something worse happens, the school is ready. That level of security is still the exception, even after the Virginia Tech rampage last spring put campus safety high on the agenda for prospective students and their parents. "Since Virginia Tech, they all want to know, 'What emergency plan do you have in place, and what would you have done if it happened here?' " says Cell. Getting accurate answers to those questions often requires effort.
Almost every college says it has revamped security since Virginia Tech, but it isn't easy to find out exactly how. Universities aren't required to reveal their emergency plans, although all colleges must file public security disclosures that deal with some of these issues. Here's homework you can do: check out the campus police. Are the officers armed, unarmed or both? The presence of at least some armed officers can be crucial in an emergency. If a school says it relies on municipal police, visit a local station house to get a better idea of whether there's an effective structure in place. And don't forget to talk to the real experts—students (and not just tour guides)—to learn how well the campus force responds to calls.
Many schools are streamlining communication between mental-health staffers and security officials to spot troubled students early. Officials at the University of Southern California hold weekly "student-concerns meetings." USC police chief Carey Drayton says it's critical to make these sessions routine. "If they meet only when there are problems, then you may want to look more closely before signing on to that school," he says.
After Virginia Tech was criticized for failing to warn students that a killer was loose on campus, colleges rushed to upgrade emergency-notification systems. E-mail alone isn't enough for students who are walking to class or sitting in the dining hall. The better plans include multiple means of contact: e-mail, phone messages and especially text messaging to cell phones.
Although shocking attacks like the massacre at Virginia Tech draw headlines, more common crimes are a more pervasive everyday threat. "The two biggest problems are still acquaintance sexual assault and alcohol abuse," says S. Daniel Carter, executive vice president of the nonprofit watchdog group Security on Campus. Before your school visit, start your search with the numbers all colleges file by law with the U.S. Department of Education. Type in each school you're considering at ope.ed.gov/security/main.asp. You'll learn several things, some of them comforting: homicides (a total of 11 in 2005) are rare, and property crimes made up more than 80 percent of the 43,000 crimes committed on campuses in 2005. When you visit a school, base questions on these stats—and press hard for clear answers.