Talking Campus Violence

In these weeks following the Newtown, CT tragedy, as our nation (hopefully) launches a far-reaching and serious examination of the feeders of acts of public violence, those of us who counsel prospective college students may be well advised to raise the topic with our clients and their families who have surely considered it. As we all know, colleges and universities have had their share of this violence, as Virginia Tech and so many other instances remind us – along with other more frequently occurring types of campus violence that don’t often make the news, like rapes, suicides, and brawling.

What might we say on this topic to our client families that might be helpful and not just alarming? One thing would be to recommend that a college’s violence prevention and response plan be queried as one of the range of factors included as schools are compared and considered. My past experiences as a college administrator who often dealt with incidents and at-risk students thoroughly convinced me that multi-pronged approaches including awareness and early intervention are the most powerful ways of diminishing the incidence of violence on campus … certainly over outdated measures that may sound good but don’t accomplish much. How many times, when a parent has asked about sexual assault in an admission information session, have they been told of blue light emergency phones and escort services, even though most women who are raped while at college are victimized by an acquaintance in a dorm room, apartment, or fraternity house?

The following list of measures, policies and procedures constitute some elements of a best practices model for campuses that are taking the threat of violence seriously, and addressing it holistically.  I am grateful to have found online a report made to the MA Department of Higher Education that helped fill in the gaps in my knowledge since I last worked as a Student Affairs staff member:

1) Publication of campus crime statistics: Since passage of the Clery Act in 1990, named for a female undergraduate who was raped and murdered at Lehigh, campuses must make yearly statistics available on campus crime. Schools that do this more openly, rather than burying the report in obscure pamphlets and publications that must be sought out, signal a more proactive stance.

2) Educational and awareness programming: When programs are extensive and ongoing, ideally starting with first year student orientation and crossing over into campus media, classrooms, and residence halls, it helps to establish behavioral norms and makes a statement about institutional values and commitments.

3) The use of technology to alert students to developing threats: Notification systems can use cell phone alerts, email announcements and other means of quickly informing students of a threat or breaking incident. The campus where I presently teach part time has such a system. Thankfully, it has never needed to be employed, but it is regularly tested, so I know it works.

4) The use of multiple technologies to increase campus security: Widespread use of technologies like sophisticated door locking systems and CCTV cameras are important as safeguards and deterrents and should be widely employed.

5) Adequate psychological services, including specialized services and programs on topics like substance abuse, suicide prevention and conflict resolution: Counseling Centers play an important role not only through the provision of individual therapy, but also in educating the campus community about warning signs and available resources.

6) Creation and regular updating of detailed emergency response plans and crisis management teams that represent all factions of the campus community, including external community responders.

We might also suggest that when questions on such subjects are asked, the receptivity of institutional representatives is in itself an indicator of the commitment of a college to deal seriously with these issues. Finally, I recommend a powerful, sobering book about an actual incident written by my friend Gail Griffin, recently retired professor of English and Women’s Studies at Kalamazoo College: The Events of October: Murder-Suicide on a Small Campus. The link to the Massachusetts task force report that I referenced: http://www.mass.edu/library/reports/CampusViolencePreventionAndResponse.pdf