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.
Recently, as violent attacks and tragic deaths occurred at colleges in Alabama, Arizona, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas, a California Court of Appeal ruled that public colleges and universities have no general legal obligation to protect adult students from the criminal acts of other students.
The case was brought by Katherine Rosen, a 20-year-old pre-med student, who was brutally stabbed in a University of California at Los Angeles chemistry lab by another student. She argued the university breached its duty of care by failing to take reasonable steps to protect her from foreseeable violence.
Rosen’s lawyers have vowed to bring the case to the California Supreme Court. Whether or not the case is accepted, it is noteworthy beyond California because it comes at a time of renewed national discussion of gun control and violence on campus.
Perhaps most surprising about the 2 to 1 decision is that Rosen’s claim was dismissed by the court as a matter of law. The court determined that the issues were so clear that a jury did not need to determine the facts -- even though doctors at the campus hospital had earlier diagnosed the student who inflicted Rosen’s injuries as suffering from paranoid delusions and possible schizophrenia, and he was in ongoing treatment in a university outpatient facility. (He was later found not guilty of the crime by reason of insanity.)
In reaching the conclusion that the legal issue was free from doubt, the court opined that the foreseeability of the crime made no difference: “Colleges and universities … are not liable for the criminal wrongdoing of mentally ill third parties, regardless of whether such conduct might be in some sense foreseeable.” [Emphasis added.] The court provided the rationale for this statement in a footnote where it conjectured that imposing a duty of protection might cause some colleges to reduce or eliminate mental-health services, or to disregard the privacy rights of the mentally ill, to avoid liability.
The logic of the Rosen case comes from a line of earlier California cases (none involving mental illness) where courts made a clear demarcation between K-12 schools -- with young students, mandatory attendance and a rigidly controlled environment -- and the college or university setting, with adult students who since the 1960s have demanded the right to regulate and control their own lives.
In loco parentishas all but disappeared, and the court in Rosen concluded that reimposing the level of authority and control necessary to protect against third-party criminal conduct is “incompatible with the ‘realities of modern college life’ and the ‘goal[s] of postsecondary education.’ … We find no basis to depart from the settled ‘rule that institutions of higher education have no duty to their adult students to protect them against the criminal acts of third persons.’” Rather, the court found that colleges and universities are microcosms of the outside world, where violence can occur anywhere and everywhere, and students are responsible for protecting themselves.
Yet a powerful dissenting opinion in Rosen criticizes this all-or-nothing approach to student protection, highlighting a separate line of California cases that have carved out an exception to the no-duty rule. These cases all involved college sports (described as a “core” function), where the courts have found that higher education institutions have sufficient supervision and control over students to create a legal obligation to protect them.
The dissent argues that if colleges and universities have a duty to safeguard students on the ball field, then surely they must also have that responsibility in the most “core” of college activities: where students are in a classroom or laboratory under the active supervision of a faculty member. The dissent also draws attention to brochures and other promotional materials that reassure students and parents that UCLA is a safe environment.
A Difficult Balance
Weighing the social benefits of imposing or rejecting a special duty to protect students against the social costs is vexing. On the one side, those who concur with the ruling have argued that violence is part of the human condition and impossible to predict, no matter how professional or sophisticated threat assessments have become. Colleges and universities already have their own incentives not to become the site of the next tragedy and have taken a variety of voluntary proactive measures to reduce criminal violence and protect students from harm. They should not be punished when, despite good faith efforts, they get it wrong.
Were colleges required to more strictly control the behavior of students with mental illness, or other markers that suggest potential misbehavior, they would surely be liable under antidiscrimination laws. In addition, out of an abundance of caution, they would most likely overregulate -- or punish -- those who are “different” or unfairly deprive them of their right to pursue an education at the institution of their choice.
Students with mental illness might avoid seeking help for fear that disclosing troubling thoughts or fantasies to anyone at the college or university would provoke unwanted campus attention and response. Ironically, that would only worsen the situation and increase the risk of violence on campuses.
On the other side, others contend that colleges and universities should not automatically be excused from liability for third-party misconduct. Such institutions have the power to establish rules of conduct for the campus community; to hire, train and empower personnel; and to impose sanctions and restrictions. While college students are adults, they are still psychologically vulnerable and must depend on institutional safety measures, such as campus police and judicial affairs. Colleges gather students in large open spaces -- classrooms, libraries, lounges and plazas -- where they are exposed to acts of violence. Colleges may not have ubiquitous power to protect students from every violent act, but they should be responsible when -- through action or inaction -- they make matters worse.
Irrespective of the ultimate outcome in Rosen, no one should read the current ruling as permission for any college or university to relax or move away from measures to keep its campus safe. The opinion states: “Colleges and universities may properly adopt policies and provide student services that reduce the likelihood such incidents will occur on their campuses …” [Emphasis added.]
Already, an explosion of federal rules and regulations impose safety responsibilities on colleges and universities:
The Campus Safety (Clery) Act requires publication of detailed reports on campus crime and security measures, and preventative education.
Title IX prohibits sex discrimination (including toleration of sexual violence) and requires swift response to claims and campuswide preventative education.
The Drug-Free Schools Act requires regular distribution and review of drug and alcohol prevention policies.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act requires notice of emergencies and missing students and publication and testing of emergency response procedures.
The Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act requires notification of information on enrolled sex offenders.
And these are just a few -- the list goes on.
Colleges and universities today must take steps to enhance student security -- whether as a matter of legal or moral responsibility. They must have thoughtful written policies for students who present a threat of danger to the campus community. They must develop detailed plans for the management of threats and actual violence, and they must follow those plans to the letter. They should train and retrain people with responsibility under the policies.
Higher education institutions should also nurture an institutional culture of community responsibility, encouraging anyone with concerns about potentially dangerous students to come forward. They should make sure every student, faculty member and staff person knows where to go to report his or her concerns. They should organize an interdisciplinary team -- with mental health professionals, residence hall supervisors, faculty, police, campus lawyers and other campus administrators -- to meet regularly, share information, coordinate, evaluate and manage troublesome cases, and empower the team to take swift action.
Colleges and universities should not be held responsible for what they cannot prevent. They are institutions of higher learning, not insurers of student safety. But the bar for what institutions must do to prevent violence, protect students and manage complicated situations is set quite high. The Rosen ruling does not change that.
Christine Helwick is former general counsel for the California State University system and now advises college and university clients at Hirschfeld Kraemer.
In this country in 2015, we have had 294 mass shootings in fewer than 300 days. Some of the worst and more dramatic incidents have been at our institutions of higher learning. Two more just occurred last Friday -- one at Northern Arizona University and another near Texas Southern University. In fact, such mass shootings have been such a common occurrence that perhaps we’re becoming desensitized to the horrors of them. The initial shock seems to be followed, in a week or so, by a relatively quick return to normal life -- as if we’ve become resigned and unsure whether anything can actually be done.
What are the solutions? People who work and study at colleges and universities have offered various recommendations, some more reasonable than others.
I am a criminologist and teach at an urban university. Although I want every college and university to be a bulwark of freedom, I know we have to make some important changes to stay safe and improve our chances of surviving when an armed person comes onto a campus with the intention of doing harm. For starters, we can minimize the opportunity that these individuals can do harm. So here’s an idea.
Modern life is crowded, fast-paced, busy. When we go to public places or attend entertainment venues -- an airport, a football game, a concert -- or we even enter into many office buildings in large metropolitan centers, we are OK with passing through a metal detector or undergoing a security search, despite the annoyance and hassle.
We have accepted these forms of access control as part of our daily routine: show your ID, place your backpack on the conveyor belt, submit to a stranger looking through your things. Why do we do it? Because we believe that it works. As much as we may not like it, we accept it and usually feel safer. It is the price we pay for living in a society where we have the right to bear arms.
But something is not syncing up here. People are still losing their lives to individuals who have amassed an arsenal of weapons with seemingly few barriers. We have yet to come up with a solution, political or otherwise, to stop these murderers from doing us harm. In the wake of another shooting, some observers are quick to point to flaws in the mental-health system, while others say we need a dialogue about a culture that embraces violence. A number of stalwart citizens continue to advocate for better gun control. And others, reminiscent of the Wild West, talk about arming everyone to the teeth: if everyone is armed, then no bad person will dare to start shooting. Or so they say.
Meanwhile, we willingly, if not happily, endure security checkpoints in certain situations, while, at other times, we are totally on our own -- in a movie theater or college classroom or at a street party. Why have security in one public place and not in another? Is it just the cost?
This approach can be overcome. But first we need to analyze our commitment to access control to include virtually all public spaces -- malls, college campuses, festivals, theaters, public meetings -- not just some.
The new threshold has to be this: wherever people gather, in any number, for any reason, any duration and in any place, their security is paramount. Elementary and secondary schools are obvious sites. But we must include libraries, houses of worship, retail spaces and more. We have to take our willingness to pass through those gates -- and let that acceptance go forward as far as possible. Otherwise, the idea of feeling safe, of getting through a school day or a church service alive and well is, sadly, not realistic.
Obviously, this is going to cost a lot. But it is an investment: the payoff is in the lives saved and the families left intact, not destroyed by the trauma of another mass murder. And it would demonstrate to policy makers, in particular gun advocates, that there is a significant price to pay to better prepare public spaces and existing institutions for these times when all kinds of weapons are easily available.
Are the added security measures a slippery slope or a tragedy for our democracy? Some people would argue that embracing additional security will establish a true police state and that our freedom will be lost.
It is not wrong to worry about that. All of us should. But the more immediate problem is that innocent people are dying violently every day.
How will additional security measures change life on a college campus? Will freedom of speech and freedom of movement and association be compromised -- or even lost? I doubt it. It’s hard to imagine that a security check -- just like you would go through at a concert or a sports venue -- will destroy our ideals.
In many K-12 schools nowadays, students and adults walk through metal detectors, and bags and backpacks are passed through scanners. Some colleges and universities have instituted these systems as well. But this effort is far from comprehensive.
Initially, students, faculty members and staff members are probably not going to be at all happy with increased access control. But few people liked these new protocols when they were first introduced at airports and other sites, and they got used to it. Already, many colleges and universities in the United States require students, professors and administrators to swipe their cards to gain access to a building, and some ask for bags to be placed on conveyor belts to be screened by magnetometer or X-ray machines. Inconvenient as this might be, it is a far better option than, as some people suggest, arming people on campuses. The latter would probably lead students, teachers, staff members and administrators to be more reluctant to voice their opinions for fear of sounding controversial -- or worse, inciting and incurring someone’s anger and motivating them to draw and use their weapons.
Also, it all depends on where and how security measures are implemented, and the quality of the staff members who are responsible for managing the security checkpoints.
I am not suggesting that all colleges and universities should be gated communities, nor am I advocating that we post campus police wearing camouflage fatigues everywhere. But many higher education institutions, particularly in big cities, have extra security precautions like the ones I have recommended. And they have operated quite well.
Some may argue that this strategy is more appropriate for urban institutions that may appear to be more compact. This is not necessarily true. Think of New York University -- which is spread out among different buildings in Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side and Wall Street, not to mention downtown Brooklyn -- versus Columbia University, which is pretty self-contained. That said, campuses that are located in smaller towns or in more remote locations and effectively spread out would have to selectively choose the buildings where they want to increase access control. They might also consider cordoning off the most vulnerable buildings, if they have not already, by building some sort of fencing in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
Do not get me wrong. Implementing better security systems and protocols is not a cure-all for the far deeper systemic and complicated challenges surrounding gun ownership and use in American society. Yet none of those issues are going to be solved in the immediate future.
In the meantime, an average of close to one mass shooting a day in our country demands strong action. Improving security may be the best start. Let’s work on realistic ways that we can prevent somebody from taking more lives.
Jeffrey Ian Ross is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Baltimore. He is the editor of Encyclopedia of Street Crime in America (Sage, 2013).
Against vociferous opposition from the state's own university system, a Florida Senate panel last month approved a bill allowing students, faculty and staff with appropriate permits to carry guns on public college campuses. This brings to 10 the number of states that are poised to consider so-called campus carry legislation this year. Nine currently allow it in some form or another.
This most recent wave of legislation is buoyed by arguments that guns on campus will help address the problem of sexual assault. As Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore put it memorably, “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. [Sexual] assaults... would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in the head.”
Critics retort that guns are a distinctly combustible ingredient added to college life, where young adults occasionally engage in binge drinking and wild partying. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine how guns can solve the problem of sexual assault on campus. Who is to say the ones carrying out the assaults won’t be armed, too?
As the campus carry movement picks up steam nationwide, there is, I would argue, another major concern worth considering -- one that has been wholly omitted thus far: How might guns impact the atmosphere and pedagogical goals of the classroom, and the political mission of the university? For, it seems clear to me, guns stand opposed to all that. There is something inherently contradictory about guns in college. They are a rude, unnecessary intrusion from the outside world, and threaten the intimacy and openness that academe hopes to foster.
American philosopher John Dewey argued that the classroom is the root of democracy, since it is where individuals learn to talk to people of different backgrounds and perspectives, collaborate, and negotiate differences. The classroom is where the all-important process of socialization occurs -- something that cannot take place at home, steeped in the privacy of family life. A functioning and vibrant democracy requires that citizens learn to work with one another, which in turn demands openness -- and a willingness to trust.
Guns communicate the opposite of all that — they announce, and transmit, suspicion and hostility.
In the humanities (where I teach), the seminar room is a designated space for intellectual exploration, and students must feel safe and encouraged to do just that. They are expected to take risks -- moral, political and personal. Controversial ideas are aired, deliberated and contemplated from many angles. Sometimes these ideas are offensive.
Many academics will contend that, at least ideally, classroom debate should be lively, even heated at times. Emotions may run high. As a case in point, I think of the many uncomfortable discussions following the Ferguson and Staten Island police killings last year. Differing views of what constituted racism -- and especially, whether racism lingered and was still entrenched -- elicited highly personal conversations, sharp comments and campus protest. In frank discussions, ugliness, racist undertones and deep cultural mistrust were exposed.
Honest exchange is the only way forward amid such controversies; different perspectives and experiences, even if they cause resentment in the short run, must be uncovered and understood if we hope to expand the bounds of empathy. Unpopular views must get a hearing in the classroom. Professors are obligated to foster a setting where students feel comfortable airing their most deep-seated fears and prejudices -- which may not be looked on kindly by others.
Guns in the classroom threaten this dynamic. Will students feel so safe and free when surrounded by other students who may be, secretly, arms bearers? Will they feel emboldened to take moral and political risks? Will they feel inclined to air potentially offensive views? I doubt it.
In fact, the prospect of guns in the classroom is more likely to cause professors to keep the conversation tepid and avoid certain controversies; everyone else will watch what they say, how they say it and to whom. This would be quite the opposite of the open and transformative exchange that universities have made it their mission to offer.
There is a further point. As we saw in the aftermath of the Ferguson and Staten Island police incidents, and earlier with the Occupy Wall Street movement, university campuses are places where political protest takes root. Perhaps colleges are not quite the haven for political protest that they once were -- like, say, in the 1960's. But universities have traditionally been places where students practice protest -- where they practice articulating and voicing political concern, and engaging in productive, demonstrative assembly. Sometimes the protest tactics they practice are aggressive, and push the envelope. Again, I would say, this is how it ought to be on campus -- it hearkens back to universities’ role as political incubators and testing grounds.
But guns are noxious in an atmosphere where people will experiment with risky methods of protest. To that extent, guns on campus may well kill such protest.
Guns may provide a basic kind of bodily and personal safety. This is the recurring argument put forth by campus carry proponents. This argument is dubious at best. But this much is clear: guns do nothing to help universities attain the kind of safety they desire and need -- the safety that enables intellectual and political exploration. Guns by their very nature dampen speech -- they chasten it. Colleges simply cannot tolerate them.
Firmin DeBrabander has writtenDo Guns Make Us Free?to be released by Yale University Press in May. He is also a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.