Sharpen your safety awareness by following tips, staying alert

Take caution with actions

It’s your first semester at college, and chances are it’s the first time you’ve been away from home for an extended period of time. You want to hang out with friends, go to parties and explore the new world of opportunities that is available to you. But there are safety risks that go along with being on your own.

To help protect yourself, we talked to experts from campuses all over the country to find out what you can do to avoid some of the dangers associated with many common college situations. Our guide gives you tips and advice you can use to stay safe and still have a good time.

Night safety

Whether you’re walking back from a late-night study session or coming home from a hard night of partying, campus can be a completely different place when the sun sets. Students can decrease their chances of being victims of crime at night by following these tips.

• Get to know your campus and the services available, says Jon Ahola, the director of public safety at Michigan Technological Institute, in Houghton. Most schools have some form of a shuttle service or an escort service that operates at night to get students home safely.

• Know where the emergency phones are and keep your cell phone in your hand in case you need to use it quickly, Ahola says.

• Keep your keys in your hand so you don’t waste time digging in your purse or pockets to find them. They also can make a good weapon if necessary, Ahola says.

• Travel in groups when you can, says Steven Healy, the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and director of public safety at Princeton University, in New Jersey. “There’s safety in numbers.”

• Pay attention to areas that could be safe havens. Look for areas or buildings with lots of people if you need to duck in somewhere quickly, says Jerry Matthews, the director of public safety and emergency management for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y.

At a party

It’s a common college experience – students are going to go out, drink and have a good time. If you’re a freshman new to the party scene, follow this advice to keep safe when you’re out and about.

• Go out in groups, especially if you’re a female, Healy says. Go to the party and make sure you leave the party with all the members of your group.

• Watch out for your friends at the party. If it looks like they’ve had too much to drink, make sure they don’t accept any other drinks people may offer them, Healy says.

• Make sure you know where your drink came from, Healy says. Don’t drink it if you didn’t pour it yourself.

• Have a game plan before you leave, Matthews says. Set a fixed number of drinks (whether it be zero or three) for yourself and stick to it. Before you leave for the party, plan what you will say if you are offered more drinks than you want.

Campus Emergency

After the tragedy at Virginia Tech, many schools are re-evaluating their emergency response plans. Should there be an emergency situation on your campus, here are some rules to follow:

• First, make sure campus authorities can notify you of any potential problems, Healy says. Many campuses are implementing programs that send alerts via e-mail and text messages. If your campus offers the service, sign up.

• Have emergency numbers programmed into your cell phone, including campus security, Healy says.

• If you’re in a building with a shooter, lock and/or barricade the door and call 911, Ahola says.

• If you’re in an open space and have to run from a shooter, stagger your directions, he adds. You’ll be harder to hit than something moving in a straight line.

• Follow the advice your school is giving, Healy says. They may need you to stay in your dorm room, or they may need to evacuate the entire building.

Theft protection

With our cell phones, iPods and BlackBerrys, we’ve become a society that’s in love with our handheld devices. They’re small, portable and carry all the information we need. But their size makes them easy targets for theft. On a campus with tons of new people, leaving your backpack on your seat while you make a bathroom run could be a costly mistake. The pros offer some suggestions on how reduce your chances of being a victim of theft.

• Keep your dorm room door locked at all times, Ahola says. No matter how long you’re going to be gone – even if you are just going to the bathroom – shut and lock the door. Don’t leave your property unattended in libraries or lecture halls either. Thieves are opportunists; if they see something sitting unprotected, they will be more likely to snatch it, Matthews says.

• Secure your laptop with a lock and inscribe an identification number on your other small devices, Ahola says. These ID numbers make items hard to re-sell, Healy says.

• For expensive items, there are tags, such as the STOP ID tracking tag by Secure It ($25, These are difficult to remove from the items, Healy says, but if the tag is taken off, it leaves an unnoticeable identification that can be tracked if the item is stolen.

Jessica Milcetich, McClatchy-Tribune