In just a few years, the push to allow concealed weapons on campuses has shifted from a long shot in a few states to a movement that's gaining steam in many parts of the country, including two of the most populous states.
The elevated attention paid to sexual and interpersonal violence, coupled with new legislative requirements, is leading colleges and universities to improve the ways that victims and survivors can report incidents of such violence. Providing additional resources and educating students about reporting options can lead to a significant increase in those reports. That is a positive step forward. However, surges in reporting can, in turn, stress institutional resources and delay or stop colleges and universities from shifting their focus to actually preventing sexual violence and bringing reporting numbers back down.
Yet more recent requirements of the 2013 Violence Against Women Act reauthorization and state legislation in New York and California demand colleges and universities to work more on preventing violence in the first place. This is a favorable development over all and one that should be celebrated. But shifting to prevention is easier said than done in a field that does not have decades of evidence-based solutions. Worse, institutions that are working through the compliance curve detailed here will have to expand prevention efforts at the exact time when the employees charged with implementing such programs are swamped dealing with reports.
It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the vast majority of institutions reported no rapes occurring in 2014 -- at least in the specifically defined locations of the Clery Act that were disclosed to a campus security authority or local law enforcement. That was the case even as climate survey after climate survey has shown that a considerable portion of women and men have been victimized by such violations (although the precise number can differ between surveys). Societally, the reporting level is low, and that applies to sexual violations in college as well. As shown below, at the beginning of the reporting curve, the number of violations is much higher than the number of reports.
But as institutions develop and improve their reporting methods and resources, and they endeavor to disrupt longstanding silos between different offices that can lose reports in bureaucracy, reports of sexual and interpersonal violence will skyrocket. It isn’t unheard of for campuses to have such reports of sexual and interpersonal violence double or triple year over year in the midst of a campaign to educate students about reporting options on top of additional efforts to respond in a timely way to reports of violations. That spike puts substantial pressure on first responders, Title IX coordinators, judicial and conduct professionals, and counseling centers.
That pressure is a systemic risk, as the time and effort that campus officials spend responding to cases may draw attention away from the work needed to get to the next level: prevention programming. Such programming can include bystander intervention and engaging student leaders who can model behavior that changes the culture surrounding sexual and interpersonal violence. At this level, institutions can reach what I call the violence reduction inflection point (gold line), as shown in the figure above. It is at this most difficult point that resources are stretched thinnest -- and where many institutions become stuck, staff members become overwhelmed and morale can suffer.
But it is exactly at this point that colleges and universities need to spend the most time, resources and intellectual bandwidth to shift to a prevention model. If institutions can properly commit resources to improvement in prevention, that work will lead to a reduction in overall incidents of violence (solid red line) with a concordant reduction in reports of violence (solid blue line). Note that the road back down is a gentler slope than the initial increase in reports, as the process will take longer. The danger is that if the improvement in prevention is not there, incidents will occur at the same rate (dotted red line) and reports of incidents -- while never encompassing all incidents that occur -- will nevertheless remain high (dotted blue line), continuing to strain resources as the institution attempts to respond to them all.
The fact is, at most institutions, greater prevention efforts will require not simply asking existing response personnel to take on more tasks related to prevention. It will also demand an investment in additional resources and personnel, or additional shared efforts in offices across the campus. While good models of prevention programming already exist and can be adopted or purchased, the ideal is for a campus to eschew buying an off-the-shelf product in favor of developing programming that, while building on the publicly available work of others, is tailored to its specific campus culture and population. Such efforts are absolutely crucial to bringing the number of reports down -- not because the reporting will return to a low percentage of incidents, but because the incidents themselves will decrease.
While the dollar cost of acquiring access to some of these programs is low or nothing, the time and resource cost of implementing any of them at a campus can be high. Thus, it is easy and tempting for overworked Title IX and student affairs professionals to say, “I have so many investigations on my plate, I can't even begin to think about additional programming.” That understandable impulse is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Without an intentional and significant shift of current and new resources into prevention programming and culture change, the number of incidents will stay high, as will the number of reports (albeit never as high as all occurring incidents). Without a greater focus on prevention, staff will be endlessly overwhelmed, and we in higher education won't make the dent in the prevalence of incidents and reports that we have the capacity to make.
The Stream Model of Sexual and Interpersonal Violence Prevention and Response outlined below can help people think about prevention and response in both upstream and downstream programs. While downstream efforts, such as responding to violence and violations, are vital, institutions should also be constantly looking upstream to bring new programming and policies online that reduce the number of incidents that require a response.
In short, it is not enough to strengthen resources to respond to violence. Federal law requires, and the current times and our educational mission demand, that higher education lead the way in developing, studying and implementing prevention programming so as to lower the incidents of these crimes and violations on and off the campus. Colleges and universities must work to ensure that their efforts not only to respond to and increase reporting about assaults but also to ultimately prevent them are consistently moving forward.
Joseph Storch is an associate counsel and chair of the student affairs practice group in the State University of New York's office of general counsel. The views expressed here are his own.
After each college shooting, we are left wondering, “How could have this tragedy been prevented?” Unfortunately, that is not an easy question to answer.
Each college shooting is distinct when it comes to the shooter’s motivation, the identities of victims and the readiness of the institution to respond to the attack. However, according to research by the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Education, someone often is aware that a person is planning an attack before it occurs yet does not effectively intervene. If all threats of violence were taken seriously and reported, preventing attacks on campuses would be much more possible.
As a salient example of this, Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif., recently averted a probable tragedy when someone reported to the police that a student was talking about shooting up the institution. In that case, police and mental-health professionals worked together to evaluate the student and found him to be a credible threat to campus safety, with both the means and the desire to cause harm. They subsequently detained him and placed him under psychiatric care.
The reality is that we always hear about the tragedies and hardly ever hear about the campus officer who de-escalates a dangerous situation, the psychologist who prevents a murder or suicide, or the student who reports a rancorous roommate to the dean of students because of safety concerns. How many people have heard about the averted shooting at Hartnell College compared to the tragedy that occurred several months ago at Umpqua Community College, where nine students were killed?
In the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, colleges have improved their information-sharing procedures and put in place better violence-prevention safeguards. Campus police, mental-health professionals and student affairs officers now work together to mitigate threats of violence. Such professionals are trained to identify potentially violent students, and they employ research-based threat-assessment protocols.
They are better prepared than ever to protect college communities. But they still need something more. They need people who hear about a potential violent act to come forward and say something about it.
It takes courage to come forward and report a potentially violent student. However, not doing so literally can cost lives.
Common barriers that keep people from reporting threats of violence include:
not trusting authority figures
worrying about being perceived as a “snitch”
being afraid of being personally targeted by a perpetrator
worrying that the person being reported will get in serious trouble, and
expecting that college administrators will not take the threat seriously.
Research that I reported in the Journal of School Violence and Psychology of Violence discusses ways to reduce these barriers. What I found was that ensuring a healthy climate is the core of effective violence prevention on college campuses. Essentially, people’s willingness to report threats of violence increases when they feel connected to the campus community, have confidence in college administrators and trust campus police officers. If every person on the campus community feels engaged and connected, they will work to protect each other’s safety and well-being.
Colleges can do a lot to make students feel connected and engaged. Some obvious and relatively easy actions include hosting frequent social events that encourage student, faculty and staff members to mingle; supporting a diverse array of clubs and recreational opportunities; and openly celebrating diversity. Also, while colleges are good at sponsoring events that resonate with involved students, such as members of fraternities and sororities, they need to think creatively about how they can support and engage all students -- even and especially those not affiliated with a formal campus organization. Nobody should feel isolated or like a loner at college.
In addition, colleges can encourage people to report threats by having anonymous telephone tip lines and maintaining the confidentiality of those who call or write in. In this regard, as early as at freshman orientation, colleges should proffer the message that students should report a threatening peer and provide them with information on the tip line. Furthermore, colleges should also send the clear message that reporting a threat does not necessarily mean that the person being reported will get in trouble. They can emphasize that, instead, professionals who also have in mind the interests and rights of the person being reported, as well as the safety of the campus community, will evaluate him or her carefully and make thoughtful decisions.
The take-home message is that although it is not possible to prevent all college shootings, many of these tragedies can be prevented if people are willing to report potential and actual threats of violence. Working to create a campus culture of trust and accountability, one that promotes individual investment in the good of the community, will help. We’re all in this together.
Michael L. Sulkowski is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Education in the School Psychology Program. He also is the chair of the Early Career Workgroup of the National Association of School Psychologists.