Staying safe at Penn State: A guide for new and returning students

August 21, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The start of the fall semester at Penn State marks more than just the start of classes. For many students, the new semester also marks their first time living on their own — and with that independence also comes the need for personal responsibility for one’s own safety and security.

Officer Michelle Beckenbaugh, community policing liaison with Penn State University Police and Public Safety, said that everyone — from individual community members to offices like University Police — plays an important role in creating a safe and welcoming campus.

“Our top priority is student safety, and we are always committed to providing the safest possible campus environment,” Beckenbaugh said. “It is the responsibility of everyone, both at the individual and community level, to take an active role in looking after their personal safety and contributing to the overall health and safety of our community.”

The first step to upholding your own health and safety is to always be aware of your environment, Beckenbaugh said. Whether it’s making sure to look both ways before you cross the street, keeping track of your valuables like your phone and wallet, or making sure you’re aware of what’s going on around you while you’re out and about, being situationally aware is always a first line of defense.

Here are some other practical tips for staying safe during your time at Penn State:

Follow public health and safety guidance related to COVID-19

Members of Penn State’s leadership and staff have been working diligently to create a safe and healthy environment for Back to State, but it’s also the responsibility of each individual member of the Penn State community to follow the necessary steps to reduce transmission of COVID-19.

As laid out in the Penn State Coronavirus Compact that all students are required to agree to, all students are expected to:

  • Be tested for COVID-19 before and/or throughout the semester as directed by the University.
  • Participate in the University’s contact tracing process.
  • Isolate and/or self-quarantine as needed following directions of the University.
  • Wear face coverings at all times in campus buildings, outdoors when they cannot social distance from others and wherever state or local laws require.
  • Honor physical distancing requirements on and off campus.
  • Follow guidance from the University and other authorities, including signage, postings, emails and other notifications.

Students are also expected to self-quarantine for at least seven days prior to arrival on campus; contact University Health Services or campus health staff if they test positive away from campus; get a flu shot as soon as the vaccine is available; follow good hand hygiene practices, including frequent washing and sanitation; stay home and seek medical care if ill; and restrict travel both outside and within your local area to only what is necessary, with walking or biking preferred over public transportation.

Know how to contact police

For immediate or life-threatening emergencies, students can and always should call 911.

Students at University Park should program the number for University Police (814-863-1111) into their phones, and be aware of how to find the University Park police station at 30 Eisenhower Parking Deck.

Each Commonwealth Campus also has its own police and public safety office. Commonwealth Campus students should consult this list to find the phone number and station address for their campus.

Students can also report a suspected crime to University Police using this online form, which applies to every campus and allows students to remain anonymous if they so choose.

Additionally, many on-campus elevators have emergency phones, and every campus has emergency phones in public, outdoor spaces, in the form of poles topped with blue lights. Students can use the “health and safety” filters on map.psu.edu to note the location of emergency phones for each campus.

Always lock your door

The majority of thefts that occur on campus stem from a residence hall being left unlocked and unattended, Beckenbaugh said. Whether you live on or off campus, always be sure to lock your door to help safeguard against theft.

Similarly, making sure your bicycle is properly locked and registered, and that personal items such as phones, laptops, wallets or purses are not left unaccounted for, can help greatly reduce the likelihood of theft.

Beckenbaugh also noted that residence halls are equipped with safety systems to restrict access to residents only, and encouraged students not to bypass those systems.

“Residence halls and apartment buildings are private residences, and you should not let strangers or unescorted guests into those buildings,” she said. “And, of course, if you see someone gain access who shouldn’t, don’t hesitate to make a report to police.”

Safeguard your personal information

Phishing scams and phone scams unfortunately are common, so be sure not to give out your personal information, including your Penn State ID number and your passwords.

If you receive a strange email or phone call trying to get you to share personal information, it may very well be a phishing attempt.

“If something doesn’t seem right,” Beckenbaugh said, “then it probably isn’t right.”

She also noted that official law enforcement agencies, including University and local police, will never contact you demanding money under the threat of arrest -- this is a common scam that can take many different forms.

If you’re unsure if something is legitimate, reach out to a trusted source or report the incident to University Police. You can report suspicious emails to phishing@psu.edu. To learn more about information security and what you can do to protect yourself online, visit https://security.psu.edu/phishing/.

Understand 'Run, Hide, Fight'

Penn State has adopted an Active Attacker Response Program as part of the University’s ongoing commitment to the safety of those who are on University campuses to learn, live, work and visit.

Based upon the “Run, Hide, Fight” model developed by the City of Houston, Penn State’s Active Attacker Response offers the same three action steps if confronted with an active assailant, making it easy to remember and act upon in an emergency: run if you can, hide if you can’t, and fight as a last resort.

University Police and Public Safety has additional details on the “Run, Hide, Fight” protocol, including a step-by-step guide and training video, available at this page.

Call the Penn State Safe Walk service if walking home alone

Every Penn Stater has every right to feel safe walking around campus. If, for whatever reason, you ever feel unsafe walking by yourself, call the Safe Walk service at 814-865-WALK (9255) and a student auxiliary officer will accompany you to your on-campus destination. The Safe Walk program at University Park is a free service of University Police, and is available to students and employees from dusk to dawn, 365 days a year.

Additionally, map.psu.edu lists which paths on the University Park campus are lit at night, under the “health and safety” filter.

Understand the concept of ‘medical amnesty’

The first steps to avoid trouble with alcohol are not drinking while underage and, for those of legal age, to always use alcohol responsibly.

However, Penn State policy and Pennsylvania law both protect underage individuals who make a report out of concern for the safety and well-being of a friend.

Under Pennsylvania’s Medical Amnesty Law and Penn State’s “responsible action protocol,” if someone calls the authorities out of concern for another person suffering from an alcohol or drug overdose, both the caller and the person in need of medical care are shielded from legal or disciplinary repercussions if the caller reasonably believes they are the first to call, provides their name, and stays with the person in need of medical attention until the authorities arrive.

Beckenbaugh said that a student who calls authorities, and the person in need of attention, would not be in trouble, but instead would receive support and educational resources to learn from the incident and make better personal choices moving forward.

“In a situation where someone may be suffering from alcohol poisoning or an overdose, our first priority is always saving that person’s life — not getting anyone into trouble,” Beckenbaugh said.

Understand the importance of consent and what constitutes sexual assault

Sexual assault unfortunately does occur on college campuses across the nation, and a large percentage of these assaults happen in the first weeks of the semester as new students are adjusting to college life, according to Jennifer Pencek of the Penn State Gender Equity Center.

In most cases, the victim and the assailant know each other before the crime takes place, and a large percentage of the cases also involve alcohol. Pencek noted that victims can be of any gender identity.

“If a student chooses not to have sex, that is a valid decision, and if they choose to have sex, that also is a valid decision,” Pencek said. “But in every sexual encounter, it is absolutely critical to make sure it is consensual.”

Consent is affirmative and ongoing, and requires the person to not be incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. Consent can be either verbal or nonverbal, but must be clearly given, Pencek said. If you’re unsure if someone has given consent, then stop immediately; make sure you clearly receive and confirm the other party’s consent before initiating or continuing a sexual encounter.

Pencek explained that if a person is unconscious or incapacitated, they cannot consent. If a person says "yes" but later changes their mind, they are no longer giving consent. You can consent initially and then decide to stop; everyone has the right to change their mind and withdraw consent.

If a person simply doesn’t say "no," this is not consent — the absence of "no" is not the same thing as saying "yes." If a person is pressured into giving consent, it is not truly consent; it is coercion. If a person does not give consent, such as in any of the previous examples, and another party continues with a sexual encounter, this is sexual assault, Pencek said.

If you are ever the victim of sexual assault, Penn State has resources available to support and empower survivors. The Gender Equity Center offers confidential counseling and advocacy, and can help survivors navigate the reporting and criminal justice process if they choose to do so. Counseling and Psychological Services also offers confidential counseling and therapy, including crisis intervention services. The Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response, while not a confidential resource like the previous two and subject to Title IX reporting requirements, offers ways to report sexual misconduct, resources for victims, and information for how to support survivors of sexual assault.

“If you are ever the survivor of assault, however you are reacting is OK; you don’t have to take the same steps someone else might. No one knows how they’ll react to something like that until they’re there,” Pencek said. “I want you to know that you are absolutely not alone. You are the person with the power to determine what to do next and what actions to take, and we are here to support you.”

Report hazing

Hazing is illegal and against University policy. Student safety is a top priority at Penn State, and the University will investigate every allegation of hazing to the fullest extent possible. Any individual or organization found responsible for hazing is subject to University discipline that may include expulsion from Penn State or termination of University employment.

To report instances of hazing by an individual or within any University-affiliated or recognized organization or group, contact the Office of Ethics and Compliance, the Office of Student Conduct, or the Penn State Hotline, or submit a report through an anonymous online form. In an emergency, call 911 or contact University Police.

If you see something, say something

“What it really comes down to, at the end of the day, is that we are all Penn Staters — and it’s up to each of us to watch out for each other,” Beckenbaugh said. “So, if you see something that seems out of place or that is suspicious or concerning, say something.”

She encourages all Penn Staters to, if they see a friend or even a stranger being harassed or put in an uncomfortable situation, remember the “three D’s:” directly interact with the people involved and express your concerns; distract them by diverting their attention to something else to covertly defuse the situation; and delegate your responsibility to intervene by notifying someone else who is better equipped to handle the situation, such as law enforcement, if appropriate. If you ever feel unsafe, always delegate.

If you see something suspicious or concerning, don’t hesitate to call police to report it. Police are in a better position to assess and respond to a potential incident the sooner it is reported. Contact police directly and avoid reporting incidents through social media channels, which are not monitored 24/7 and not intended for emergency communication.

You can also make reports to the Penn State Behavioral Threat Management Team, which investigates reports of individuals who may be a danger to themselves or others. For more information, including indicators of potential concern, visit btmt.psu.edu.

Know what resources are available to you

If a student is ever victimized or assaulted, there are many Penn State resources available to support and empower that student.

The Office of Student Conduct supports students and investigates reports of misconduct; the Gender Equity Center and the Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response support survivors of sexual assault; Counseling and Psychological Services offers mental health services and therapy; and the Office of Student Care and Advocacy works with partners across campus to help students impacted by traumatic or unexpected events. Penn State University Police and Public Safety also has a dedicated victim resource officer and offers a number of resources for victims.

Students also can benefit from Student Legal Services, the Multicultural Resource Center, the Center for Spiritual & Ethical Development, and the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, all of which offer a wide range of resources and programming.

“Being a student is an exciting and important time in your life, often with many different priorities to juggle,” Beckenbaugh said. “But your first priority should always be your safety and well-being. Staying safe and healthy is the foundation that allows you to achieve all of your other goals, and the entire Penn State community is here to help and support you.”

Last Updated August 25, 2020