Starting college is one of the most exciting milestones in your child’s life, and every parent wants the experience to be both educational and enjoyable for their kid. That’s why it’s so important to have open, honest conversations about college safety — from drinking culture to sexual assault, knowledge is power and students should have the knowledge and tools to protect both themselves and each other.
Here are some key topics to discuss with your child before he or she begins the school year.
Heidi Wysocki, Security Consultant and founder of First Defense Solutions, which teaches a campus safety course, emphasizes the importance of discussing consent with both young women and young men.
“You are not owed anything from anyone. Nobody owes you a smile, a kiss, a nude pic, nothing. ‘No’ means ‘no’ and sexual activity requires clear and sober consent,” Wysocki says. It’s crucial that every student understands this. She adds that young women need to remember it’s not their responsibility to make people comfortable, and they’re not responsible for anyone else’s feelings of embarrassment or anger.
“Never put yourself at risk to make someone else feel at ease,” Wysocki advises. “Trust your gut feeling. If something feels wrong, get yourself to a safe place.”
Dr. Howard Forman, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, also recommends talking with your kids about their overall attitudes and comments surrounding the issue of consent. Challenge your kids to be the ones who speak up when they witness problematic behavior or conversations. “There are cultural interventions that we can all take to make social situations safer from sexual assault,” Forman says. When banter in a setting turns towards taking advantage of people, teach your kids to stop and point out the danger of speaking in this way rather than letting it slide.
Forman adds that because all the safety steps in the world don’t offer full protection against sexual violence, it’s also important to talk with your kids about what to do if they or someone close to them is victimized. Make sure that they know where to turn for support; provide them with resources that help victims recover both emotionally and physically.
Know your substance limits
Not every college student drinks and you may not love the idea of your child consuming alcohol — but the bottom line is that the majority of college students do drink, so it’s important to be realistic and make sure that your kid is doing so as safely as possible. Dr. Sharon Saline, Psy.D, tells SheKnows to teach your kids to learn their substance use limits and share them with friends. “Ask friends to give you a sign when you are becoming intoxicated or stoned,” Saline says. “Set limits before you go out to use moderation, substitute non-alcoholic drinks and ask for support with that if you need it.”
And pay it forward — remind your kids that they should also know their friends’ limits and do everything they can to make sure no one is drinking too much.
Be vigilant about dorm access
“Don’t let anyone tailgate behind you to access the dorm,” Wysocki says. She adds that even if you know the person is dating a fellow dormmate, that person is their responsibility — not yours. It’s important to remember that there may have been a falling out that you’re not aware of, and this person may no longer be welcome in your dorm.
If you have earbuds or airpods, Wysocki says it’s fine to have them in your ear but make sure they’re turned off as you approach your dorm so that you can be aware of what’s around you. “Nobody else knows you’re not listening to music, but you can always shut that dorm access door behind you and keep walking as if you didn’t notice them,” she says.
Plan in advance of parties
If your child does decide to attend parties, Wysocki has some recommendations of what they should think about in advance. Whether or not your kid drinks alcohol, it’s crucial that they never accept a drink that has already been opened. In bars, only accept a drink that they’ve seen the bartender pour and then hold on to it. “Bottled or canned drinks are easiest to protect versus a cup. Roofies are more rampant on college campuses than you may realize,” Wysocki says. “If you have to go to the bathroom, take your drink with you and keep it with you, or throw it out and buy a new one when you get back.”
But the most important rule for parties is to never leave a friend behind and this should be agreed upon before you leave. “If a friend wants to hook up, the rule should be that she comes home with you or others, and she can go back out after that if she so chooses, but never leave anyone at a party,” Wysocki tells SheKnows, noting that the risk for sexual assault increases when one or two girls are left behind. And if you see a girl at a party who is either abandoned or appears “out of it,” befriend her and make sure that she’s OK. Help her find her friends and don’t leave her behind just because you don’t know her or don’t know her well. “You have the opportunity to change the course of someone’s life for the better by watching out for each other,” Wysocki says.
Practice rideshare safety
Many kids start taking Uber and Lyft for the first time in college. Remind them to always check the license plate before getting into the car. Wysocki says that both Uber and Lyft have a feature that lets riders notify their friends where they are and in what vehicle. “When you get into a rideshare (after confirming the license plate and photo of the driver from your app), in Lyft use the ‘Send ETA’ function and notify your roommate or anyone else that you think could help you if you needed it,” Wysocki advises. “In the Uber app, swipe up and select ‘Send Status’ to up to five contacts.”
Although rideshares are generally very safe, taking these extra precautions can be life-saving.
Learn about blue lights & escort programs
“Blue Lights are campus call boxes that connect directly to a dispatcher at campus police. In an emergency if your phone isn’t working or accessible, you may use a blue light phone,” Wysocki explains. Scope out the Blue Lights on your campus so you know where to head if there’s an emergency and using your phone isn’t an option.
Wysocki also recommends looking into whether or not your college has an escort program — many campuses put these in place to make sure students get home safely from a late class, a friend’s dorm, or a late study session. “Depending on the school these may be ROTC Cadets or student volunteers. You can always call Campus Police directly and ask for an escort if you feel unsafe to get home alone,” she says. “If your campus has an escort program, use it. It is a free service that will help you get home safely.”
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