United States: Shootings On Campus: Institutions Should Review These Security Measures Now

Last Updated: October 20 2015
Article by Paul G. Lannon

Paul Lannon Jr. is a partner in Holland & Knight's Boston office

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Recent campus shootings in several states remind us that violence can erupt without much, if any, advance warning. How educational institutions can best prepare should be an ever-evolving process that incorporates the latest information and best practices.
  • A crisis should not be the first time campus security works with emergency responders from outside the school. Ensure that campus safety officials have established professional relationships with key emergency personnel at state and local levels, that response protocols or memoranda of understanding are in place, and that information sharing is seamless.
  • Educational institutions also should establish a way for select faculty and staff to share information about student behavior in a confidential manner for the purpose of identifying potential safety threats and determining how best to respond.

The disturbing increase in campus shooting tragedies demands a careful review of campus safety measures. Recent incidents in several states remind us that violence can erupt without much, if any, advance warning. Educational institutions must be prepared. How best to prepare should be a regularly reviewed, ever-evolving process, incorporating the latest information and best practices.

As we have seen, campus violence does not discriminate between urban and rural campuses, or between large public and small private schools. All are at risk. Accordingly, educational institutions of all types and sizes are well advised to develop comprehensive campus safety programs that address key risk factors in a coordinated and effective manner. While complete protection from harm is not attainable, reasonable steps can be taken to minimize risks and improve response efforts. Some of the more important steps to consider are outlined below.

1. Conduct Lockdown, Shelter-in-Place and Active Shooter Training Exercises

Do campus safety personnel know how to respond to a shooting in progress on or near campus? One sure way to find out is to conduct "active shooter" training exercises, in coordination with local law enforcement, in which campus safety personnel respond to mock reports of a shooting in progress or near the campus. The exercises can improve response time, expose vulnerabilities to be addressed and clarify the roles of first responders.

What should faculty, staff and students do during a security emergency? Effective lockdown and shelter-in-place training exercises help educate members of the school community about practical steps they can take to protect themselves and others during an active shooter situation. Simple measures such as locking doors and staying out of sight may save lives.

The Department of Homeland Security maintains a helpful website with more detailed shooter preparedness information and training exercises.

2. Coordinate with Local Law Enforcement and Emergency Responders

Given their limited resources and missions, most campus safety departments are ill-equipped to respond effectively to active shooters on campus. Consequently, coordination with state and local resources is crucial. A crisis should not be the first time campus security works with emergency responders from outside the school. Ensure that campus safety officials have established professional relationships with key emergency personnel at state and local levels, that response protocols or memoranda of understanding are in place, and that information sharing is seamless.

3. Assess Physical Security

Which doors on your campus lock? Which windows? Who can lock them and how? Where are the fire alarms? Is there any video surveillance? To have an effective campus safety program, it is imperative to assess the strengths and weaknesses of physical security measures. Up-to-date and reliable information about physical security should be shared with campus safety and local law enforcement. The information will drive decision making about how best to prevent and respond to a campus safety crisis.

4. Test Emergency Notification Systems and Backups

As required by federal law, schools must have comprehensive systems for providing prompt and reliable communication to staff, students, parents and local law enforcement, both on and off campus. Relying on one method alone, such as email, is not sufficient. Emergency notification systems should cover electronic, audio and visual media to reach the maximum number of people in the campus community regardless of the circumstances. Do not overlook old-fashioned but effective audio methods, such as sirens, and visual media, including flashing lights and danger signs. For the visually or hearing impaired, these methods may work best.

Just as important as having a robust notification system is having an effective process for using it. Confirm the process for deciding whether to activate the emergency notification system and consider contingencies if designated decision makers are unavailable.

5. Identify and Support At-Risk Students

Does your campus have a threat or behavior assessment team? Is there an established means for identifying on a regular basis students who may pose a threat of harm to themselves or others? Educational institutions should establish a way for select faculty and staff to share information about student behavior in a confidential manner for the purpose of identifying potential safety threats and determining how best to respond. To avoid discrimination, such teams must conduct individualized assessments based on multiple factors and not act on speculation or stereotypes.

To be effective in identifying threatening behaviors, members of a campus community need to know what to look for and what to do with the information. Training is the first step. In conjunction with healthcare professionals and law enforcement, the campus community, particularly faculty and staff, should be trained to identify danger signals and report them to the proper authorities. This does not mean that teachers should flag every student who writes about violence or that campus security should frisk anyone wearing a trench coat. Rather, the campus community needs to be watchful for patterns of behavior that collectively raise genuine concerns about a student's health or safety. Examples of such behavior include increasing isolation or anti-social behavior, threats of violence to self and/or others, stalking, a dramatic drop in grades or attendance, and failure to comply with medical treatment plans.

Once at-risk students are identified, there should be a plan for providing counseling and support services. Crisis moments can be avoided, or at least mitigated, by carefully tailored care programs. As circumstances change, threat levels and response strategies should be reassessed.

6. Review Policies in Enrollment Materials and Student Handbooks

Published policies ensure that educational institutions have the authority and flexibility to address threats of violence on campus. Important policies to review include:

  • Reporting Process: Provide an easy-to-understand description of how to report safety concerns, including anonymous reporting options, over a variety of communications channels.
  • Cooperation with Investigators and Law Enforcement: Students and employees should be required to cooperate with officials duly authorized to investigate and respond to threats on campus.
  • Involuntary Leaves/Emergency Removal: Express authorization to place on leave any student who poses a substantial threat to the safety or welfare of any member of the campus community.
  • Medical Evaluation and Conditions for Return to Campus: Express the requirement for medical evaluation or certification by qualified healthcare professionals as a condition for returning to campus after a medical or involuntary leave.
  • Background Checks: Obtain written consent for the institution to conduct a background check that includes criminal record information.
  • Parental Involvement: Express authorization to notify the parents of students subject to a certain level of discipline or considered to be at risk to harm to themselves or others.

Conclusion

No safety programs are foolproof, and all measures must be balanced against the need to maintain a positive, nurturing academic environment that is free from discrimination and unreasonable intrusions into private matters. By following the tips in this advisory, educational institutions will be well positioned to strike the right balance for their communities.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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