Undoubtedly, George Mason University has recently been making great strides toward becoming a more respected and nationally recognized university. With the seemingly unending construction of new buildings and the numerous openings of popular chain restaurants, Mason is a far different institution than it was even four years ago when I began studying here.
However, there is one difference between Mason and other big-name regional schools that can no longer be ignored. Having done the rounds of the nearby universities when deciding where to apply, and after visiting friends at their respective schools over the past four years, it is clear to me that the emergency call box system here at Mason is lacking.
There are currently no mandates that require universities to install security systems such as blue lights and call boxes on their campuses. Despite this, most area schools and all of the out-of-state universities I have visited in the past seem to have made such systems a priority.
For instance, the University of Virginia has installed and maintains a security system that comprises over 400 blue lights and call boxes. They also provide an easily accessible map of the lights’ locations on their website.
The University of Maryland utilizes a public emergency response telephone system with 319 lights and phones and also offers a printable map.
Even NOVA, with a campus less than a third the size of Mason, seems to devote more energy to their call box system. The call boxes at NOVA are numerous, and the school commits a section of its website to discussing their existence.
Searching for any information about call boxes on Mason’s site is frustrating as there is no section specifically dedicated to the lights and call boxes on campus. Additionally, when I went to inquire as to the existence of a map showing the locations of call boxes and blue lights on campus, I was told that no such map exist.
The bulk of my information on Mason’s emergency call box system was derived from the transcript of a 2001 Board of Visitors meeting during which chief of police, Mike Lynch, brought up the topic. After the installation of around 50 units on the Fairfax campus, the company that installed the lights and call boxes went out of business in 2000. Mason’s solution at that point was to send the units to a company in Norfolk to be repaired at the cost of about $150 per call box. My tuition and housing fees for a single semester alone could cover the roughly $7,500 cost of servicing the boxes yearly, so I wondered why, when I looked around campus today, I did not see 50 functioning call boxes.
During the 2001 Board of Visitors meeting, opponents of a new security system on campus argued that cell phones eradicate the need for call boxes and blue lights, and that the cost of installing an entirely new system — between $300,000 and $500,000 — was too high. Chief Lynch suggested that the university’s best option was to allow the boxes to break down and slowly reduce their numbers to only a few located in “critical areas.”
A few years later in a 2003 Mason Gazette Q&A, Chief Lynch said that “it is not an automatic that if we find a call box that does not work in the middle of some parking lot somewhere, we would spend the money and buy a new one and replace it with a new working call box.” This sort of statement worries me because “in the middle of some parking lot” is exactly the sort of “critical area” where we need a blue light and a call box. The money the university saved by phasing out the boxes, as Chief Lynch proposed in the 2001 meeting, could be used to fund more bike patrols and campus escorts.
Seeing that all of the information I was able to find independently on Mason’s call box system was more than five years old, I met with Chief Lynch in order to assess Mason Police’s current outlook on the blue lights and call boxes. Boiled down, his response was that the call boxes are being phased out because they do not provide a return on investment.
The call boxes and blue lights are very expensive, around $4,000 per unit, and Chief Lynch was only able to recall one incident over the past 10 years during which a call box was used for a real emergency on the Fairfax campus. He maintained his 2001 stance that cell phones negate a need for call boxes.
Chief Lynch stated that there are currently 16 boxes on campus, down 34 from the original 50.
“If you see a blue light phone, it does work,” Lynch said.
During the interview, Chief Lynch claimed that police cadets test each box weekly, and if a unit is found to not work, it is replaced, removed or repaired.
I’m sure that in 2001 when Chief Lynch suggested that the money for call boxes be redirected to more bike and foot patrols, he may have been looking to replicate the feeling of safety that call boxes can provide on a college. But despite a claim on the Mason police’s webpage today that officers here routinely patrol our campus on foot and on bike, I’ve never seen any police officers out walking a beat or riding a bike around campus, and I’m often out late at night. Many Mason students seem to feel the same way.
Junior neuroscience major Claire Collins said, “ No, I never see the Mason cops patrolling on their bikes or on foot. I only see them out of their cars if there is an accident.”
Freshman pre-nursing major Catherine Pulley said that she “just sees them driving around wasting gas.”
Junior non-profit studies major Nick Terzian said, “If they walked around more often, there could be fewer crimes on campus.”
While it is possible that the Mason police do perform these walking and cycling beats, the important thing to note is they are not a visible presence to the students the way a standing light and call box would be.
Having done my research, I was left with a choice to make before writing this article: Was I for or against installing a new call box system here at Mason? The answer, I’ve come to find, is both.
I understand this university’s desire to spend money wisely. Blue lights and call box systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. There have been stupendously few reports of people utilizing call boxes for true emergencies both here and on campuses across the country. Chief Lynch had a point when he said there is no return on investment when you’re talking about call boxes. However, that’s when you’re talking about money. If a call box system ends up saving even one life, then, to me, you have a return on your investment tenfold.
I think my stance on this issue comes down to this: As this campus grows, Mason needs to more strategically place the current 16 boxes and add more units in critical locations. To me, an entirely new system is not the way to go. I don’t think we need to install a bunch of new lights and call boxes up by the Johnson Center, but I do think we need to install them in each of the parking lots. I think they also have a place on the more wooded trails.
Throughout my research, there was one discovery that bothered me more than any other, and it is the current placement of the call boxes. One of the first things I did when I chose to write this article was take a walk around campus and scope out the locations of the lights and call boxes. While the lack of call boxes in shady areas was concerning to me, what was more deplorable was the plethora of boxes within Presidents Park.
I counted eight call boxes in Presidents Park, two of which had broken lights despite claims that units would be maintained. If you recall, Chief Lynch stated that there are currently 16 functioning units on this campus. That means that the call boxes in Presidents Park account for 50 percent of the total boxes on campus. Does Presidents Park represent 50 percent of this campus? Absolutely not! Is Presidents Park what most would consider a more dangerous part of this campus? That’s laughable. It is the one housing area that is always included on tours for prospective students and the only dorms most parents ever get a good look at.
It seems that placing such a large number of the units in Presidents Park is not a safety precaution, but a way of saving face with parents and incoming students.
There are three major reasons why I support the addition of new call boxes in strategic locations on campus. First, this campus is growing rapidly. More people on campus means more opportunity for crime, and more physical space means more area for police to cover. Call boxes are a staple of large, thriving universities, and if that’s what Mason wants to be, then new call boxes may be in order.
Second, I see a hole in the argument that cell phones eradicate the need for call boxes. The advantage that call boxes have over cell phones is that they pinpoint your exact location for the police. If you are in a dangerous situation, it could be difficult to report your location accurately on a cell phone. Assuming a person doesn’t run too far away from any call box they utilize during an emergency, the police will have a good idea of where to find her, or at least of where to begin an investigation.
Finally and most importantly, it may be true that call boxes are not utilized enough to justify their monetary cost to this university, but they do provide something that is invaluable: a feeling of security for students and faculty.
Honestly, I don’t feel unsafe on this campus most of the time. I don’t think most students worry much about the issue often either. However, walking through a dark, vast parking lot after your night class lets out can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially for young women. I’ve heard young women refer to both the foot trail by the pond and the wooded path that links the President Park area to Sub II as “rape trails” or “creeper trails.” For me at least, the sight of a blue light would be comforting.
We will never know exactly how many crimes call boxes and blue lights prevent because we are not inside the mind of a criminal. How many criminals would commit a crime when a call box is in view? I bet the number is smaller than the number of criminals who would commit that same crime with no call boxes in sight.
In 2001, Chief Lynch described the call boxes as a security convenience and not a security necessity. A campus that feels safe is necessary, not convenient. The larger this campus gets, the more opportunity there will be for crime, and the necessity of a safe feeling on campus will, I believe, become more prevalent in students’ minds. This is an issue that Mason should address before it becomes a larger concern.
Mason considers itself to be an innovative and forward-thinking institution. The administration and the Mason police force seem to take student’s general safety seriously and, according to yearly reports, do a good job of securing this campus from crime.
However, the lack of call boxes presents a weak point in security on campus. While an entirely new call box system would be unnecessary and costly, the installation of some new units and a more strategic placing of the boxes will provide a safer environment for students. At the very least, this course of action will provide students with a more secure feeling. It could also prevent dangerous crimes. Both of these outcomes are positive. Mason is currently growing in both physical size and number and this issue can no longer be swept under the rug.