It's been nearly a decade in the making, but a federal clearinghouse for all things campus safety and security was finally set in motion this week, with the U.S. Department of Justice announcing a $2.3 million grant to establish the center at the University of Vermont.
The National Center for Campus Public Safety will be "a one-stop shop" for resources, advice, training and best practices on all the issues that campuses generally must grapple with alone: threat assessment, emergency management, and compliance with federal laws such as Title IX and the Clery Act, among other things.
"I can tell you that as a consulting firm, we get calls regularly from potential clients looking for information that just isn't centrally located," said Gary J. Margolis, managing partner at the campus safety consulting firm Margolis Healy and Associates, which won the Justice Department grant to establish the center in partnership with Vermont. "This is going to help with that.... All of this stuff that we do now as a consulting field, we can bring together through the national center."
The idea for a national campus safety center emerged nine years ago, and it's been tacked onto and removed from various bills since then. One year of appropriations for the project were included in a bill signed by President Obama in March, but the center would be permanently established with the passage of the Campus Safety Act, which is currently part of an omnibus safety package attached to the gun bill that's stuck in Congress.
Some experts said the event that pushed the center to the finish line (tentatively, at least) was the December school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. But signing off on it now is more than just a symbolic gesture, said Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University.
"It's actually a big step in a chain of smaller steps toward firming up the idea of a national campus safety civil right," Lake said. "I really do think the safety center is a significant moment in establishing this idea that from a federal level, college students are entitled to safety rights that they may never have under state law."
Washington already regulates campus safety in a number of ways, from a number of angles.
A few examples: The U.S. Education Department has guidance on Title IX and Clery (in different offices), the U.S. Justice Department has its FBI campus liaison initiative, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides sample emergency management plans.
"The point is, the federal government is already extensively involved, but it's dispersed and needs to be centralized," said S. Daniel Carter, director of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation's 32 National Campus Safety Initiative. "It's not 'why' does the federal government need to be involved, but it's 'how' is the federal government going to be most effective in their involvement."
Margolis is hoping to launch the center in the first quarter of the 2014 calendar year.
The center will be a place where institutions can contribute ideas for what worked (or didn't) to combat crime on their own campuses. But it will also aggregate resources from all the various places in which they're spread out now, including private associations.
For example, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) has loads of information that could help police. The VTV Foundation conveys the voices and needs of people who have been harmed by violence on campus and want to help form solutions. Organizations of student affairs, emergency management and accreditation professionals will all have expertise to contribute.
When it comes to campus safety right now, despite heightened attention to the issue following multiple school shootings, "schools kind of figure it out on their own," Margolis said.
The national center will aggregate data and information for campuses to retrieve and share, but will also run training and field programming (in person at Vermont and online at individual campuses).
"We really feel that it's a significant development for the campus public safety profession," said Chris Blake, chief staff officer at IACLEA, which has lobbied for this center since 2004.
For the typical problems campus police deal with (alcohol, drugs), methods, resources and policies are well-established and widely available. But now campuses are reinventing the wheel with emerging issues, which will go a whole lot better if there is a central organization with best practices, training and other resources, Blake said.
After the Virginia Tech shooting, for instance, behavioral threat assessment began to take hold in an effort to identify potentially troubled students before an incident occurred.
"One campus might know something, and another might know something else," Blake said. "The whole idea of behavioral threat assessment was really big and we did what we could to collect what examples were out there, but there was no resource that a campus public safety officer could go to at the time."
Lake said the government's "facilitative" approach to changing behavior through the center is a plus for campus safety enforcement, too.
"I think the first thing a lot of people are going to think is, 'Oh no, here comes another burdensome compliance mandate, another Title IX times 10,' " Lake said. "I see an entirely new way of thinking about campus safety, which up until relatively recently was really based on the fear of liability and the fear of regulation. I think we're moving into a really welcome period where the federal government is trying to guide and facilitate ever-safer practices, and I think that's likely to be beneficial to the everyday student in litigation and regulation."
Ann H. Franke, president of the consulting firm Wise Results, LLC, issued one caution.
"A perennial challenge with this type of activity is to avoid recommending specific standards that the courts then adopt to determine liability. The center will want to pay regular attention to this risk," Franke said in an email. "Overall, I’m delighted to see this project move ahead."