There is no issue that concerns parents more when they send kids to college than the safety of their student. But take comfort: There's a lot more than just pepper spray that students can rely on to protect themselves.
The personal safety market now includes a variety of apps and devices. Many send an alert to friends or family, emit a loud sound, or pump out pepper spray. There are also smartphone apps that keep students in touch with family or friends or alert the police if necessary.
While college campuses have long had the blue light towers that allow students to directly contact campus police, the new apps and devices are carried by the student wherever they go and can be used as an alert off-campus or inside a dorm room or any other building.
While both the apps and devices are designed for use by more than just college students, the CEOs of two different hand held safety devices makers said their largest purchasers of the devices were parents.
Personal alert devices
This category of safety devices allows a student who feels threatened to instantly alert friends and family through their cell phone by pushing a very small panic button. These devices can be carried in a hand, clipped onto a key ring or backpack or slid into an item of clothing such as a bra or your pants waistband, where they may go unnoticed by a potential assailant. Some of the newest devices, like Revolar, are enabled for different levels of notification so that the user can let their contacts know that they feel concerned and uncomfortable or with a second push of a button that they need help immediately.
"One of the most important things we put into Revolar," said CEO Jacqueline Ros, "is the two different alerts and that came from hundreds and hundreds of interviews with survivors of sexual assault. They would say things to me like, 'My instincts were saying something was wrong but I didn't want to cry wolf.' I kept hearing that narrative again and again. So the yellow alert is the preventative piece. It allows people to safely reach out to their micro-community, to family and friends, to say you have concern about something that you are not prepared to call 911 [for]. The red alert lets people know, please send for professional help, the situation has escalated."
Hand-held devices have the advantage of being available even if an attacker grabs a cell phone or knocks it from a victim's hand. They require a no more than push of a button and are connected by Bluetooth to a phone that might be out of reach in a backpack or purse. They allow a potential victim to alert five people at a time to insure that someone sees the message and reacts quickly.
"I see this as an extension of that promise that parents make to their kids when they say, 'Any hour, you call me. It doesn't matter what the situation, call me if you need me.' Revolar is a physical version of that promise, " Ros said.
Personal safety alarms
These are handheld devices that operate as the modern version of a whistle or an alarm — or as ROBOCOPP likes to call theirs, a "sound grenade." They act as a deterrent like a car alarm does by scaring off an possible assailant.
Noise is an effective deterrent for crime, said ROBOCOPP CEO Sam Mansen.
"If you are being mugged, we don't want to call the cops afterwards, we want to try and prevent it from happening. We think the rational way to go about preventing a crime is by using a very loud acoustic deterrent. "
These handheld devices can be easily detonated to emit a piercing noise at 120 decibels, which compares to an ambulance or a loud rock concert. They don't require a cell phone.
"If you activate this device in a room, like a dorm room, it is very hard to stay in that room for more than 10 seconds," Mansen said.
Personal safety apps
There are many personal safety apps that do some of the same jobs as the handheld devices. Companion is a free app that allows a student to alert a friend that they are leaving one location, traveling to another and to check in along the route. The phone's GPS tracks the entire trip and alerts the "companion" that their friend has arrived safety. Along the way, the app asks users to confirm that they are okay and if they do not respond, alerts the companion or authorities.
Apps are free or inexpensive compared to other devices, are less likely to be left at home than another device, and they can access contacts, 911 and send photos. But in the event of an attack, a cell phone can be grabbed or knocked from a potential victim's hand. Accessing the app might also involve some fumbling in a frightening situation.
These safety devices allow someone to fight back in the event of an attack and in many places in the world are considered weapons. While shown to be effective in warding off an attacker, the use of pepper spray is forbidden on some college campuses, and there are travel restrictions with carrying the chemical on airplanes. In many states, students need to be 18 years old to buy or use pepper spray.
The advantage of pepper spray is that it is very effective in disabling an attacker, yet one of the disadvantages is that in a windy environment the spray can be ineffective or harm the person who is spraying it. Pepper spray is an aggressive defensive action and there is little that can be done of a more intermediate nature.
Lisa Heffernan is a cofounder of Grown and Flown, a site for parents of 15 to 25-year-olds.