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A woman’s view from the frontline: An interview with Laura McSherry

I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Laura McSherry Security & Community Safety Manager at the University of Northampton, unfortunately we were only able to meet via our computer screens, as with most communications at this time. Laura has a great deal of experience to draw from, she has a distinguished career in security management in and out of the higher education sector. Over our virtual meeting Laura shared with me, her experiences of being a woman in the security sector, how she achieved her goals and how in her experience transferable skills can be more important than brute force in campus security.


Talking with Laura it is clear her experiences support the need for ProtectED in higher education, reinforcing our findings that security is no longer just about locking doors, security teams have a wider role to play in supporting the safety and wellbeing of their students and staff — not only while they are on campus, but throughout their student experience.


How did you start your career journey?


My career began at 19 when I joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a Police Officer. Being a police officer was a dream of mine from an early age, so was the appeal of military life and the vast opportunities it would offer. With both parents serving in the military, I grew up listening to their stories, which inspired me to chase me dream.


As a junior RAF Police Officer my main role was providing security of assets, people and information and dealing with any offences involving serving personnel. At a young age this was a demanding role which required the highest levels of personal integrity; combined with the ability to assess and act on complex information as a security and policing specialist.

As my career developed, I led a team of RAF Police and Security personnel, including soldiers of the Military Provost Guard Service. It gave me the opportunity to engage in specialist areas.


What was your driving force to join the Security Industry?


After my accident that meant I could no longer serve as an RAF Police Officer, moving into Security Management was a natural progression for me. After serving nearly nine years in the Royal Air Force as a Police Officer specialising in counterintelligence. I developed skills and gained experience similar to those of a senior civilian Police Officer or Corporate Security Risk Manager.


The transferable skills I gained in my nine years with the RAF equipped me , with professional qualifications that are recognised by the Home Office, Security Industry, civilian agencies and employers. Many RAF Police Officers who have left the Royal Air Force have found jobs in the fields of emergency planning, security risk management and management consultancy. As well as counterintelligence, cyber security and information assurance.

Do you feel your Journey has been harder being a woman, in such a male dominated field?


Women only make up 10.8% of the UK’s Armed Forces overall. The Royal Air Force is a little higher with 14.7%. If someone wants to join the armed forces in a combat role, they can be a soldier, a sailor or an airman. The latter may deter some female would-be recruits from joining the RAF, simply because the title implies it is a man’s game.

I personally did not feel that my journey was any harder than normal, however I do feel security is a profession predominantly associated with men.


I don’t think women are actively discouraged from the industry; it maybe that the roles simply don’t appeal to women based on their perception of what the job entails.

We need to create gender diversity that benefits all involved in the industry, I believe there needs to be greater awareness of the options a career in security offers, more needs to be done to step away from the stereotypical vision people have of a burly man and move onto the true picture of the duties carried out by campus security. This will ensure that the next generation of security professionals is not only diverse, but better educated.


How do you feel mental health fits in with security?


There has been a growing interest in mental health awareness especially due to COVID-19 and the resulting noticeable increase in national cases. When I started, I made a commitment to ensure all the security team would undertake training to become a mental health first aider. I believe that Security teams are uniquely placed within the university community to help people when they’re most in need of it, especially out of hours, recognising the subtler signs across the university community.


Working to improve the skills of the team and the support they offer the Campus Security Team now also has adedicated Mental Health First Aiders working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week which allows them to spot potential signs of crisis and act upon them effectively and in the appropriate manner. They have also completed Suicide Awareness and Students in Distress training. Training is key and ensures the team are as equipped as possible to support any students in distress.


You are a big supporter of ProtectED what do you think we uniquely offer for HE Security?


Security remains a top priority for all in the Higher Education sector, with students statistically more likely to be victims of theft or violent crime. A growing mental health crisis has put added pressure on universities to protect the mental wellbeing of students as well as their physical safety. Security standards and quality pastoral care play a significant role in the decisions made by young people and their parents.


Universities with a reputation for safety and student support enjoy greater recruitment success both domestically and internationally, working towards the ProtectED accreditation proves that universities are dedicated to student success.


What challenges has Covid-19 brought to you over lockdown?


During the pandemic the Campus Security Team played a key role in the battle against COVID-19. The team dealt with fast-changing risks daily and, in parallel, planning for strategic challenges in the longer term. Whilst conducting their normal duties the team worked alongside other departments to safeguard all who came onto campus in a cooperative effort and amalgamation of divisions.


Essential services provided by the Campus Security Team ensured the campus kept functioning, providing vital support to the 540 students still in halls. Reassuringly for those students, we continued to work 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, to ensure everyone was kept safe.


With the university shut down and fewer people around, there was potential for opportunistic crime. There was also a greater need to monitor personal safety, physical health and mental wellbeing especially to those students who remained on campus. During lockdown the Campus Security Team responded to an increased number of mental health incidents.


For the first two weeks of lockdown additional pressure was placed on the team as most of the campus support and welfare staff were working remotely. Numerous calls were received throughout the day from students in distress, the Campus Security Team were having to triage and signpost to relevant organisations and administer first aid. Commitments the department made at the beginning of the year towards mental health helped us enormously during the pandemic.


I really appreciate Laura speaking to me and sharing insights into her career journey. It’s inspiring to see the time and training, that has been invested in improving the diversity of support the Campus Security Team at the University of Northampton offer.


It is also interesting that Laura’s experience endorses the ProtectED perspective that university security staff no longer just deal with 'security' issues but play a key role in safeguarding student wellbeing and mental health.


Lisa Ravenscroft – Communications Manager for ProtectED. You can contact me on: m: +44 (0)7889 933034 or at l.ravenscroft@Protect-ED.org

Twitter: @ProtectED_HEI www.Protect-ED.org

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