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The Hidden Dangers of University: Is Your College Student Safe?

I remember my son’s college drop-off in 2013 vividly. As we pulled up to his residence hall and the student volunteers surged forth to help us unload, I felt a twinge of pride mixed with a little nausea, similar to how I felt on his first day of preschool 15 years earlier. It’s the mental dance we all do, right? In one minute, we’re convinced we’ve taught them everything they need to know, and then in the next, we feel outright dread that we missed something vital. But, my son was prepared and excited to start his college journey. Everything so far was unfolding just as it should and we were looking forward to this next stage in his life.

In all the months of preparation leading up to drop-off day, I never had any doubt whether the college community we were entrusting him to was safe. At parent visits, I saw all the usual signs that point to a safe campus: campus security patrolling the grounds, electronic doors that prevent entry, sprinkler systems in case of fire, “blue light” stations for emergency calls, and lists of fire hazard items not allowed in residence halls. Assured by these signs of safety, we hugged goodbye and I watched my youngest child disappear into his residence hall.

I thought we’d be like most families, everything rolling out in his college years as it should, with my only worries being whether he was studying enough or maybe even just changing the sheets occasionally. But then, it all got way more complicated and infinitely more devastating. Something we never saw coming almost took my son’s life.

Shortly after he returned for spring semester, my son was sound asleep atop his loft bed when he rolled over and plummeted to the floor. The fall caused my son to suffer a fractured skull and a traumatic brain injury, brain bleed, and stroke. My son lay in a vegetative state for 10 weeks. For 10 weeks my mind tormented me with the thoughts that this could have been prevented and the question: “How many other college students suffered traumatic injuries like my son?”

In the ensuing weeks after the accident, I decided to channel my grief into action. I educated parents and students about our tragedy and empowered them to ask questions and seek accountability on dorm safety. The result was Rail Against the Danger (RAD), a 501c3 organization that I founded dedicated to bringing awareness and policy change that requires all top bunks and loft beds be outfitted with a safety rail to prevent falls.

Two years ago, I discovered that I was not alone in my quest for campus safety. I met Nanette Hausman, and we bonded instantly as two moms looking for answers and change. A resident of Connecticut and safety advocate in her own right, Nanette launched College911.net after losing her youngest son, Corey, to a preventable pedestrian accident on campus just 15 days into his freshman year. As she and her husband investigated the chain of events surrounding their son’s death, they learned Corey’s death was the third student death in those first 15 days.

They also realized that they, like most other parents, hadn’t thought about the proximity of emergency medical care as they prepared their children to live away at college. And they discovered that when Corey needed emergency care, the care he received wasn’t the best available. No one considered transporting him to a nearby Level 1 Trauma center where he could have received potentially lifesaving treatment and care.

In a single phone call, Nanette and I realized we had common objectives and that there were likely other parents we could collaborate with and learn from. We could work together to create a powerful coalition to try to influence institutions and legislators to make lasting change.

In 2021, Nanette and I joined forces with four other parents who also became safety advocates after losing their children in college. We founded the College Safety CoalitionTM (CSC). The CSC is an organization seeking to bring awareness and legislative change related to college student safety issues. It gives parents and students the data they need to make informed decisions about where to spend their higher education dollars. It also helps universities identify their safety gaps on campus so they can prevent injuries and save lives.

Each parent in the coalition has their own safety initiative addressing safety gaps in the college experience. One member, Kathleen Bonistall, founded “PeaceOutsideCampus,” whose mission is to promote peaceful and safe living environments in college communities with the goal of empowering students to learn how to safeguard themselves against crime. The other coalition members include Angie Fiege, MD (Rachael’s First Week), Gail Minger (the Minger Foundation), and Leslie Lanahan (the University of Virginia’s Gordie Center).

Together we have learned that building awareness and making permanent change in college safety is an uphill push that requires comprehensive, publicly available data (numbers) on all incidents resulting in serious injuries and death—in addition to  those currently tallied which are crime and fire related. Accidents, the majority of which are not accounted for, are estimated to be the leading cause of student fatality on college campuses by far, accounting for 10.8% of deaths (according to the American College Health Association).

Ultimately, transparent injury and death data will give parents, students, colleges, and injury prevention researchers what’s needed to make informed decisions and enable our colleges and universities to measure, manage, and minimize serious injuries. Our hope is that our advocacy helps college communities become safer with, and by, the numbers.

So, when you drop your kid off at college, ask questions about safety rails, Level 1 Trauma Center accessibility, etc.. Ask yourself if you and your child know what to do in a medical emergency, especially when they’re far away from home. You are paying good money (for some, a lifetime of savings) to a university that you presume has prioritized every angle of safety. Even though your kid is 18 and considered an adult by university standards, know that YOU are still their best safety advocate.

Mariellen Jacobs

Mariellen Jacobs lives in the suburbs of Atlanta with her husband Ron. In addition to running her non-profit organization, Mariellen works in Brain Injury Family Peer Support helping other families at Shepherd Center where her son rehabbed after his TBI and stroke. Currently she is actively assisting Nanette Hausman in promoting her national bill, introduced on the floor of the U.S. House in July that will require universities to disclose and report all campus incidents resulting in serious harm or death in their annual safety report. For more information on the COREY Safety Act, visit:

https://courtney.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/improving-campus-safety-reps-courtney-and-himes-introduce-new-bill

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