Stay safe (and healthy) at college

Much of the thrill of college life is new surroundings, new people, new priorities and new freedoms.
Those same stimulations can also present new risks, but awareness can go a long way toward staying safe and healthy on campus and off.
“It starts with learning to maintain a consciousness about their safety or health,” said Dr. Sparky Reardon, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Mississippi.
“Much of it is common sense: Find somebody to walk with you if you’re going across campus at night. Wash your hands often. Wear sunscreen, put on a seatbelt, get enough sleep and watch what you’re ingesting.”
Fire safety is a major concern, but as with many issues, common sense eliminates much of the risk.
Oxford Fire Chief Mike Hill said that cooking equipment was involved in three-quarters of dormitory fires reported nationwide from 2003 to 2006.
“The biggest thing that we’d love to get across is that when the building fire alarm system goes off, make sure you get out of the building,” Hill said. “Don’t sleep through it. You may have already been through several false alarms, but eventually it won’t be a false alarm.”
Of the 135 college-related fire deaths nationwide from January 2000 to the present, 83 percent were in off-campus housing, according to Campus Firewatch, a nationwide newsletter for campus fire safety professionals.
One factor may be that many institutions now prohibit smoking in campus buildings. Most universities and colleges also have equipment, supervision and procedures in place to mitigate fire dangers.
State Fire Marshal Mike Chaney suggests four other factors that make off-campus housing riskier: lack of automatic fire sprinklers, missing or disabled smoke alarms, careless disposal of smoking materials and impaired judgment from alcohol consumption.

Crimes and crashes
The most common crimes on Northeast Mississippi campuses tend toward the theft of unattended laptops and vandalism of automobiles, but most such crimes can be prevented by awareness and caution.
“Early in the school year they take a lot of risks about their belongings,” Ole Miss Police Chief Calvin Sellers said. “They feel comfortable here; they’re in a new environment; they don’t think about caution, and some get property stolen.”
Violent crimes happen as well, although infrequently. Mississippi State University Police recommend taking a self-defense course, avoiding dark or secluded areas, walking in groups and developing a plan of action. They also warn that alcohol and drugs make one vulnerable and inattentive – exactly what most criminals are looking for in a victim.
“Be aware that alcohol and drugs are often related to date rape,” the MSU police Web site warns. “They hinder your date’s and your ability to make responsible decisions.”
Drunk or drugged driving is one of the most common avoidable risks that college students take.
“Freshmen come here, and all of a sudden they don’t have Mama and Daddy; they have all the freedom in the world, and some of them abuse it,” Sellers said.
Even if students are determined to imbibe underage and/or to excess, Sellers said driving under the influence is needless.
“We’ve got so many other ways for them to move around,” he said. “We have public transit, and there are a couple of taxi companies that they can set up accounts with so they don’t even have to pay cash for a ride.”

Staying healthy
Young adults are typically among the healthiest groups, but new freedoms, easy habits and proximity with thousands of other people can offer risks of their own.
“There’s the ‘Freshman 15’ (a weight gain common to first-year students), but some students go the other extreme,” Reardon said. “Moderation prevents a lot of problems.”
Robert Cadenhead, administrator of the MSU Student Health Center, said probably 25 to 30 percent of students will visit that facility for treatment sometime during their tenure at State.
“We see a fair share of bruises, bumps and twists – from falls or intramural sports, mostly,” he said.
Most institutions push reminders that college-age populations are at particular risk for sexually transmitted disease. Both Ole Miss and State’s student health centers provide treatment for such infections, but they also push prevention with counseling about safe choices, including the safest – abstinence.
Perhaps the most headline-grabbing health risk for college populations is H1N1, swine flu. Already, several cases have been reported at Mississippi State, and officials are monitoring the situation. Ole Miss doesn’t have any reported cases yet, as student didn’t start moving in until Friday.
“We are significantly aware that there could be issues there,” Cadenhead said. “The national and international trends show the H1N1 flu has the possibility of being more severe than in past years.”
He said even with such a possibly far-reaching disease, personal responsibility still plays a major role.
“If you’re coughing, cover your cough. Wash down infected surfaces. Wash your hands,” he said.
Ole Miss’ Reardon agreed.
“We want them to stay well and do what they need to,” he said, “because we want them to be here for four years.”

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office offers the following campus fire safety tips.

GET OUT
Get out of the building before phoning for help.
Pull the fire alarm on your way out.
Don’t look for other people or gather up your stuff.
Crawl low to the floor.
Close the door behind you.
If you can’t get out, get someone’s attention.

TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR PREVENTION
Assign a non-impaired “event monitor.”
Clean up immediately after parties and take all trash outside.
Do not overload electrical outlets.
Keep space heaters and halogen lamps away from flammables.
Put out candles and incense when unattended.
Extinguish all smoking materials thoroughly.
Don’t smoke while tired or impaired.

USE PROTECTION
Check smoke alarms.
Plan escape routes.
Take fire alarms seriously.

Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal