News and Trends

Physical Security
News and Trends

Assault Prevention

Alarmed by the problem of sexual violence on campus, the White House and Senate have each put forth multifaceted plans for creating safer student environments.

One out of five women is sexually assaulted while in college. Most often, it happens during her first two years there, and by someone she knows. And the majority of these assaults go unreported, according to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

"Sexual violence is more than just a crime against individuals. It threatens our families, it threatens our communities. Ultimately, it threatens the entire country," President Barack Obama said earlier this year when he announced the creation of the task force. Spurred by the alarming frequency of sexual assault, the Obama administration and the Senate have both proposed broad initiatives aimed at preventing sexual assault.

The administration's proposal, says expert Brian Van Brunt, author of Ending Campus Violence: New Approaches to Prevention, is indicative of the way sexual assault prevention and college campus security have evolved in recent years. Traditionally prevention efforts focused on educating potential victims, by instructing them to to watch their alcohol intake, learn self-defense, avoid being unaccompanied in the dark, and even be mindful of what they wear, Van Brunt says.

Some security and university officials are still stuck in this mindset, said Vice President Joe Biden, who joined Obama at the task force event. "We continue to ask questions like, 'Well, what were you wearing? What did you say? What did you do?'" Biden said. "The real question is, what made him think that he had a right to do what he did?"

But now, contemporary sexual assault prevention practices focus on building safe and supportive campus communities on several levels. Efforts are focused on educating as many members of the community as possible to get involved: not just the partygoer, but the host of the party; not just the security guard, but bystanders, Van Brunt says.

To do this successfully, security programs have been moving away from the "one soldier" approach, says Abigail Boyer, assistant executive director of programs at the Clery Center for Security On Campus. Under this approach, assault prevention is a team effort at all levels and includes peers and higher-ups. "Campus safety can't just fall on one safety staffer and one department. There has to be buy-in from the administration and leadership," Boyer says.

The White House initiative attempts to address the problem through several channels. Since sexual assault is still chronically underreported, officials are trying to get a clearer picture of the problem through the use of surveys. Thus, the task force is now providing colleges with a toolkit to develop and conduct a climate survey, and is asking all schools to voluntarily conduct such a survey in 2015. Based on the results, officials plan to refine the survey methodology and will consider making it mandatory in 2016.

"A mandate for schools to periodically conduct a climate survey will change the national dynamic; with a better picture of what's really happening on campus, schools will be able to more effectively tackle the problem," reads the initiative's mission statement.

In addition, the initiative is attempting to spread awareness of preventive programs aimed at teenagers before they reach college. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reviewed primary prevention programs for reducing sexual violence and found that only three have had any positive effect on the problem. One is "Safe Dates," a universal dating-violence-prevention program for middle and high school students that includes a 10-session curriculum addressing attitudes, social norms, and healthy relationship skills, along with a 45-minute student play about dating violence.

The second is another school-based program, "Shifting Boundaries," aimed at middle school students. It contains two parts: six classroom-based sessions and a building-wide intervention that addresses safety concerns in schools. According to the CDC, rigorous independent evaluations of both programs have found that, four years after completing the program, students in the intervention group were significantly less likely to be victims or perpetrators of self-reported sexual violence compared with students in a control group.

The third is a grant program created by the U.S. Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Various prevention initiatives, including awareness programs, research, and victims services, were funded by the grant program. Together, these programs were associated with only a 0.066 percent annual reduction in rapes reported to the police, according to the CDC.

Another component of the White House initiative is a new website, NotAlone: Together Against Sexual Assault (, that offers a range of resources for both students and administrators. It includes informational sections along with legal guidance, advice on drafting sexual assault policies, material on bystander-focused prevention programs, and explanations of federal regulations, like the Clery Act. 

Like the White House proposal, the Senate proposal is a multifaceted one, but it has a particular emphasis on holding universities accountable for maintaining a safe and secure environment, as well as making the extent of the problem more transparent.

To strengthen accountability, the proposed Campus Accountability and Safety Act would stiffen penalties against colleges that fail to curb sexual assault. The bill increases the existing sanctions against universities that fail to report sexual assault crimes as required by federal law, from $35,000 to $150,000. In addition, colleges would be fined up to 1 percent of their operating budgets if they fail to investigate reports of sexual assault.

To improve transparency, the legislation would require colleges to conduct an annual anonymous survey asking students about their experiences with sexual assault on campus. Colleges would be required to publish the results online, "so that parents and high school students can make an informed choice when comparing universities," according to a summary of the bill.

In addition, colleges would be required to designate advisors to serve as confidential resources for victims of assaults. They would provide assistance, at the direction of the survivor, in reporting the crime to campus or law enforcement officers and coordinating support services. The legislation would also increase training for those responsible for investigating assaults and participating in disciplinary proceedings

Finally, in bitterly polarized Washington, the sexual assault issue has brought together lawmakers from both parties to sponsor bipartisan legislation. "There may be hope for us yet,'' Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said at a news conference introducing the bill.

Utility Attacks

Utility security professionals are living in the post-Metcalf era. Last year's mysterious attack on a power station in Metcalf, California, has heightened the importance of protecting the U.S. electrical grid—not only from natural disasters and everyday crime, such as theft and vandalism, but from a potential terrorist attack.

During the Metcalf incident in April 2013, snipers opened fire on an electrical substation for nearly 19 minutes, knocking out 17 giant transformers and causing more than $15 million in damage. The attack brought the utility grid's susceptibility to terrorism to the fore. 

"Prior to 2014…physical security initiatives among grid owners were focused primarily on preventing vandalism and theft (of copper wire) rather than a terrorist attack," writes Paul Parfomak, a specialist in energy and infrastructure policy with the Congressional Research Service (CRS), in a recent CRS report, Physical Security of the U.S. Power Grid: High-Voltage Transformer Substations.

The CRS report focuses on one of the more important components of the grid: high voltage (HV) transformers. HV transformer units make up less than 3 percent of all transformers in U.S. power substations, but they carry 60 to 70 percent of the nation's electricity that flows through the 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the grid. And they are not secure, according to the report.

"There is widespread agreement among government, utilities, and manufacturers that HV transformers in the United States are vulnerable to terrorist attack, and that such an attack potentially could have catastrophic consequences," Parfomak writes.

How likely is such an attack? More work needs to be done to get a better handle on that question, the report recommends. An effective multitransformer attack would require a certain level of sophistication on the part of attackers, including a good understanding of the operational aspects of the grid. Consequently, more analysis is needed to ascertain attacker capabilities and potential targets, and clearer assessments need to be made about where and how the grid would be most vulnerable. A continued lack of such analysis could lead to a poorly executed grid security program.

"Incomplete or ambiguous threat information may lead to inconsistency in physical security among HV transformer owners, inefficient spending of limited security resources at facilities that may not really be under threat, or deployment of security measures against the wrong threat," Parfomak writes.

Given the need for more analysis and assessments, the report asks Congress to do further work in four main issue areas. First, the report calls for more focus on identifying transformers and substations that can be considered truly critical and are of national significance. A 2013 study by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), for example, identified only 30 as critical. Failing to make these designations risks the possibility of hardening too many substations or hardening the wrong ones. 

But to make these designations in a strategically sound way, policymakers need to consider all potential threats that the grid faces, not just a terrorist attack, says energy expert Jason Black, who leads the grid solutions research team at Battelle, the nonprofit research and development organization. 

 "We will have a lot more hurricanes, than—hopefully—we will have physical attacks," Black says, so the critical designation process should reflect that. Moreover, strategic designation depends on what level of risk policymakers are willing to accept. "For an event like Hurricane Sandy, we may have a certain amount of outages we will accept, and some we will not," Black says.

Second, the report emphasizes the importance of keeping critical transformer information confidential. A strategic grid security plan will likely require more independent risk assessments by outsiders, meaning that more sensitive information about the grid will be shared among utilities, consultants, and other third parties. "Ensuring that [sensitive information] generated and transferred among these entities remains secure could require special attention," Parfomak writes.

However, the need for some confidentiality, while important, must be balanced with the public's need to know enough information about threat levels, Black says. "As a rate payer, I want to know that my money is being well spent."

The report also stresses the importance of maintaining adequate HV transformer protection, especially given that funding for security is not unlimited. "Security measures, in themselves, are cost items, with no direct monetary return. The benefits are in the avoided costs of potential attacks whose probability is generally not known. This makes cost-justification very difficult," Parfomak writes.

That point addresses a fundamental challenge about electric power security, Black says—the grid was never designed with antiterrorism safeguards in mind. "We don't have a system that's hardened against terrorist attacks," he explains. That means examining all potential hazards, prioritizing, and making the most efficient and strategic investments possible.   

The report calls on federal officials to be as clear and consistent as possible when releasing threat assessments, so that sound security policy decisions can be made. 

Parfomak offers an example of inconsistent threat information from federal officials—discussion of the Metcalf attack, which so far is unsolved. "Some federal officials reportedly have characterized the Metcalf incident as a domestic terrorist attack, potentially a 'dry run' for a more destructive attack on multiple HV transformer substations," he writes. "However, the FBI has stated that it does not believe Metcalf was a terrorist incident."