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Photo courtesy of Columbia College Chicago

College Campus Meets Urban Landscape

“The city is our campus…Chicago is our laboratory and our playground.” Those words, found on Columbia College Chicago’s Web site, ring true for the students and faculty at the nonprofit arts and media college. With more than 10,000 students and 3,000 faculty and staff, the college provides an unusual educational experience largely due to its location in downtown Chicago. That urban landscape presents security challenges as well. To meet those challenges, the school depends on well-trained staff, long-term partnerships, and a sophisticated network of security technologies to keep its campus safe.


The college campus, which consists mostly of high-rise buildings, roughly traces a rectangle through the southern part of Chicago’s central business district. Several buildings are situated along Michigan Avenue, where the campus runs about six blocks from east to west; from north to south, the campus’s buildings span 16 blocks. “Columbia is the largest property owner in the South Loop of Chicago,” says Associate Vice President of Safety and Security Robert Koverman, referring to the southern section of the largest portion of Chicago, known as The Loop. “Our footprint is pretty large.” Columbia’s security challenges are also significant due to its unique configuration and location. There are 13 high-rise buildings that make up Columbia College. Most of those structures were previously office buildings that were converted to teaching facilities or residence halls. “From a building perspective, that’s probably the most difficult challenge that we face,” says Koverman, noting that security personnel are at the front lines of their physical security operations. “Individuals can wander in off the street, and it’s the responsibility of the security officer to make sure that they can identify who’s coming in.”

In addition to Koverman, other members of the Columbia Office of Campus Safety and Security include Martha Meegan, director of campus safety and security, as well as representatives from campus environmental health and safety. Rounding out the security team at Columbia is the account manager for AlliedBarton Secu­rity Services, James Belin. (Columbia’s security forces are nonsworn officers, supplied by AlliedBarton.) 

“We have some 70 security officers and supervisors who comprise our security operations team. It’s a 24/7 operation; the bulk of the operation for those 70 officers are static posts within the buildings, and then we have patrol officers,” notes Koverman, who says the school has built a positive relationship with AlliedBarton since the service provider was selected as the winning bidder four years ago. That was around the same time Columbia was launching its 24/7 command center. “The command center began its operation a little over five years ago,” he states. “In terms of purchasing the equipment [and] designing the room, AlliedBarton came on board when it was time to start staffing it, so their growth in terms of the command center was pretty much the same as ours.”

The services provided by AlliedBarton at Columbia extend beyond simply staffing security officers, according to the company’s Vice President of Higher Education Glenn Rosenberg. “The first impression that a lot of people have of a college campus is how safe it is and how welcoming it is, and one of the first individuals they may encounter on a college campus is a security officer,” he notes. “Most of what [our officers] do is guiding and assisting people, ‘where should I go, where can I find this, how do I get from here to there’–it’s not as though crime is occurring every second on that campus. So a lot of what we do is hospitality-oriented.”

A large part of Rosenberg’s job is staying on top of the main issues affecting higher education institutions and relaying that to AlliedBarton’s clients. He works closely with Koverman and Meegan’s team on several issues affecting Columbia and how to best address them, such as when the H1N1 virus became a pandemic in 2009. He tells Security Management that he attended a conference where a medical professional shared some best practices for preventing the spread of the virus in close environments, like college campuses. He brought those ideas back to Meegan and Koverman so they could better understand their options.

Rosenberg says Columbia’s urban environment makes customer service more like what you would provide in a downtown office building. He also notes that because campuses are meant to be open, you have to ensure that individual officers understand how colleges value diversity and inclusion. He says they train their guards to “go out of their way to make sure that we are welcoming to all individuals who are coming to campus, staying very alert to who is an invited guest or is allowed on that campus because they belong there, and those who are unwanted visitors as well.” Identifying unwanted visitors while maintaining a friendly environment can be a tough task, he notes.

In addition to the high-rise challenges, the Chicago streets created an interesting dilemma for the Columbia security officers who patrol the campus by car. “Because there are a number of one-way streets in Chicago, and [due to] our location and our buildings, it’s really difficult for a car to get around,” Koverman says. About three years ago, Koverman noticed that the city of Chicago permitted Segways to operate up and down sidewalks. “I got in touch with the commander and we agreed that we could use Segways for patrols,” he says. “The AlliedBarton operations manager became a certified trainer, and so they now operate Segways.” In addition to the three Segways owned by Columbia, the security officers share one patrol car and two bicycles.


In addition to working with local law enforcement and federal agencies, Koverman explains that Columbia implements a number of security technologies to provide effective communications and security, starting with the equipment housed in the 24/7 command center. “We have a sophisticated video, access control, and communications system,” he says, adding that the college has an elaborate emergency management and mass notification system.

Because there are so many high-rise buildings within the bounds of its campus, Columbia’s emergency communications system is specially designed to strategically target certain places within those buildings. For example, there are emergency callboxes installed within every stairwell and on every floor of a Columbia building. If someone is in trouble, he or she can pick up the phone, causing it to automatically ring at another location. “The first ring goes to the security officer at the building’s specific desk, but after three or four rings, if nobody answers, it goes to our command center,” says Koverman. With duress alarms that are tied into the video system, as well as exterior and interior cameras, Koverman says the emergency management system is designed to help the security officers respond to any incidents that may occur within the buildings.

The campus does not currently have emergency call boxes placed on the grounds of the campus. Koverman explains that placing the emergency phones in and around Columbia’s perimeter would create the expectation of a response to all calls, which the security forces at the college are not equipped to handle the same way the Chicago Police Department could. “Our message to our community is, ‘if you’re in trouble, call 911,’” he states. 

The mass notification system employed by the college is also tailored to a high-rise environment. The system consists of devices mounted in every building. The devices include an LED text screen, a strobe light, and a speaker. The strobe flashes for the hearing impaired, indicating that they should check the nearest device for the LED message, which notifies them of the emergency.

“The messages originate from the command center, so we’re capable of identify­ing specific buildings and specific floors if we need to,” Koverman explains. “As an example, if we have an active shooter in a building, we can isolate a specific building and put it on lockdown through the device mass-notification system, and use the network system to send out a different message telling people that we’ve got some kind of an incident going on in another building.”

He says the speaker component of the device allows the command center to broadcast messages, much like a public address system. For ex­ample, in the specific building where the threat exists, the command center can come over those speakers and announce, “there’s an active shooter in your building, seek shelter immediately.”

The college has established comprehensive educational re­sources for students, faculty, and staff when it comes to their personal health and safety on campus. The school’s Web site provides extensive instructions on dealing with active shooters and a number of other emergency procedures, including bomb threats, chemical spills and fumes, utilities failures, missing students, and medical emergencies. 

During orientation, security provides comprehensive information for incoming students and their parents. “We work really hard at educating not just our students, but staff and faculty as well about being in an urban environment like Chicago,” says Koverman. He adds that Meegan plays a vital role in introducing the incoming students to the safety and security challenges they may face by conducting orientation programs for parents and students.

The college also works hard to ensure that it is abiding by the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. Enacted by the U.S. Department of Education, the law requires institutions of higher education to disclose any information about crime occurring in and around their campuses. “We go over and above that, even if the victim was not a member of our community, but we know that something happened within the footprint of our community, we’ll put out an alert about that as well,” says Koverman.


The campus also works closely with the First District of the Chicago Police Department, a relationship which Kov­erman says is probably “the most important” of all its private-public partnerships. He says that, besides the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois, none of the other two dozen or so schools within the South Loop has its own police or public safety departments. “We all rely on the Chicago Police Department, and again with 65,000 students in the South Loop, that’s all the responsibility of the First District, which is the [police] district within which we sit.”

Belin recalls a time when security officers at Columbia worked with the Chicago Police Department to successfully apprehend a thief who had stolen wallets from two Columbia students. After receiving a call regarding a suspicious person in a building on campus, the shift supervisor was dispatched to check out the scene. More officers were soon dispatched for support. Working together, multiple officers were able to stall the suspect and eventually get the Chicago Police Department on the scene to conduct the arrest. “A Chicago Police Department beat officer later informed me that the perpetrator was a career criminal. He had 102 arrests for similar types of crime and 18 convictions,” says Belin. “Due to the swift actions of campus security, the criminal was apprehended.”

According to Meegan, these public-private partnerships are vital to the school’s safety and security operations. Several properties not owned by Columbia exist within the college’s footprint, including a handful of higher education institutions. “We have what I call ‘postage stamp’ buildings within this radius, so of course being in this urban landscape we do not have what’s called a closed campus. We are reliant upon our neighboring higher educational institutions,” she says. To help the schools to better communicate on security issues, as well as with various law enforcement and federal agencies, Meegan founded SCOPE (Security Council of Professional Educators) in February of 2003.

SCOPE is a security advisory group that meets every other month to discuss a variety of issues affecting the area of downtown Chicago occupied by Colum­bia and the rest of the South Loop. “SCOPE was founded on the premise that we needed to have partnerships with not only law enforcement agencies, but amongst ourselves to help safeguard our campus community, as well as the geographical city environment that all of our students would be navigating through,” says Meegan.

There are more than 30 members of the advisory group representing various campus safety operations, as well as federal agencies, including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the Chicago Office of Emergency Management. 

“It’s meant for all of us to be able to network,” Meegan explains about SCOPE. “Our members get a clear understanding of the city and law enforcement resources that are made available to them.” She refers to the group as an “information-sharing” network. “We discuss not only the legislative mandates that are ongoing in the area of campus safety and security, but we’re sharing also the criminal activity that we’ve found seems to surround college campuses, [as well as] information about offenders who are working the college campuses. It’s been very beneficial.” 

For example, if there is a suspicious individual lurking around a school’s campus, SCOPE members e-mail Meegan the same alert they distribute to their own campus. Meegan then disseminates the information to the rest of the group. “We have had pictures sent to us from the SCOPE members,” she recalls. “And there have been other institutions that have stated ‘yes, we recognize this guy, he hit our area too,’…so we’ve been actually able to identify the same offenders.” Meegan notes that should that individual go to court, SCOPE can communicate which campuses the individual was spotted at as part of the legal process.

SCOPE also allows the higher educational institutions to react to emergency weather events with information readily available through the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications (COEMC). Koverman says that while no school wants to be the first one to announce a closing, SCOPE helps the campuses share information about their status. “If there’s a major snowstorm or a major weather-related incident, we all know that within a few minutes,” he explains.

Meegan adds that communicating what actions the colleges are taking during weather-related events back to the COEMC helps the agency to determine what resources need to be allocated where. “If a lot of our colleges are going to be closing then there may be some additional priorities that can be taken care of first,” she says.

SCOPE stays abreast of best practices at other higher educational institutions around the country, as well as any legislation or initiatives that may affect college campus security, such as Violence Against Women Act requirements. “We make sure that we have pertinent information at our meetings, and introduce our membership to resources that they can use to better complete their job responsibilities,” she says.

In addition to taking part in SCOPE, Columbia College Chicago is a member of BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association), a professional association for commercial real estate professionals. At one point Meegan served on the BOMA security subcommittee as chairperson, and Koverman is a member of the emergency planning committee.

The college’s partnerships with law enforcement were tested on May 20-21, 2012, when the NATO summit descended upon Chicago, bringing along with it dignitaries and delegates from around the world. The meeting, which has only occurred 25 times since NATO’s founding in 1949, marks an opportunity for leaders from countries within the alliance to meet and discuss any issues at hand, establish new policy, and invite new countries to join.

Koverman says the event brought added responsibility for the security team at Columbia as people from all over the world came to Chicago. “Because we had four or five hotels within our campus, we had something like 18 heads of state [staying] within the geographical footprint of Columbia,” says Koverman.

Recalling the value of SCOPE’s public-private partnership during the summit, he says the group was an active participant in the security operations piece of the event. “In addition to having the two-way network communications with the COEMC and our SCOPE representative at the table, we obviously have scanners in our [patrol] cars to pay attention to what’s going on,” he says. “We heard information over the radio about some anarchists possibly leading a rally and going to the [Chicago Police Department] First District Headquarters. And our newest building–the only building that we’ve ever originally built, which is our media production center–is right next door to the First District.”

Koverman says that, upon hearing that radio traffic, he and others headed to the media production center and made sure they had barricades set up in anticipation of any protests or violence. “We also heard about a possible suspicious package across the street from the First District Headquarters, so we were able to communicate with our COEMC representatives to get more specific intelligence about what was going on, what we needed to look for. We were able to get a couple of police officers to assist us down at our building as the protestors came by,” he says.

In the end, the anarchists did not make an attempt to protest in front of the First District, but Koverman says the event demonstrates the importance of effective communications among SCOPE stakeholders. “When you consider that a large group of anarchists were potentially going to place the First District headquarters and their parking lot under attack, and we were right next to it, it was really important for us to be able to share that information and get more intelligence than we would have gotten had we not had that communication,” he states.

Another event that requires Columbia’s security team to be all-hands-on-deck is the Manifest Urban Arts Festival, which takes place every May. The festival is an opportunity for graduating Columbia College seniors to showcase a variety of art forms and projects they’ve put together. During this time, Koverman says an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people from the Chicago community come downtown for the event.

Events like the NATO Summit and Manifest call for the activation of their emergency operations center, which functions like the 24/7 command center, but on a smaller scale. “We activate a modified emergency operations center during this so that we are prepared in the event of an emergency to make mass notifications, respond to emergencies, and that sort of thing,” Koverman says, noting the operations team also sends out periodic updates to members of senior leadership so they can stay informed. 

Communicating effectively with part­­ners ultimately leads to successful events and an overall safer campus for Columbia College Chicago. “This year, for the first time in a long time, we completely blocked off a whole block on Wabash Avenue,” says Koverman of Manifest 2014, noting this was unusual because the street a busy thoroughfare. “We couldn’t do this without our relationship with the city of Chicago and the Chicago Police Department, which made for a much better festival.”

And those relationships lead to a better campus environment for everyone.