Crime

Smaller institutions report increase in personalized phishing attempts

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Smaller institutions report an increase in sophisticated attempts to gain access to financial and personal information.

The limitations of emergency text-messaging systems during a crisis (essay)

At 9:56 a.m. Monday, Nov. 28, Ohio State University students and employees received an active shooter alert, but there were two key pieces of information they did not know.

One: as students rushed in total panic to build walls of chairs and desks in front of classroom doors, they did not know the alert was inaccurate. Contrary to the words in the warning, no active shooter was on the campus. He had a knife.

Two: perhaps even more important, they had no idea the campus assailant they’d just been warned about had already died several minutes before they received the first vague danger warning at 9:54 a.m. and the second one about an active shooter at 9:56 a.m. He was shot dead by a university police officer at 9:53 a.m., about a minute after he started his attack. The danger was over when people received both of those Buckeye Alerts.

The attack at Ohio State University is a reminder that although colleges and universities have spent tens of millions of dollars during the past decade to put in place complex emergency communications systems, the technology has serious limitations. Because of the way most such attacks develop, communications will always be too slow and, at least initially, not very accurate.

Pennsylvania State University put in place one of the early text communications systems in higher education in 2006, the year before the attack at Virginia Tech. Back then it was simply another news delivery system to add to the many other advances we were making in digital communications.

I have watched as the technology has expanded, improved and been deployed to thousands of colleges and universities, hospitals, and other institutions around the nation.

Higher education systems should have such systems in place, and we should practice using them, but we need to lower our expectations for their impact. I am not aware of any such system saving lives in an active campus attack.

It is also worth remembering that although there have been some high-profile shootings on college campuses, the overall rate of campus homicides is a fraction of the rate found across the country in general. Statistically our students are far safer on the school side of College Avenue than they are on the town side.

In addition to aggressive improvements in communications, campus police around the nation have stepped up training, purchased new equipment, added officers and changed tactics. But in light of those improvements and the enormous sums being spent on new technology, it is important that students, employees and parents not be lulled into thinking technology will help keep them safe.

Imagine receiving a text message that essentially warns “Hurry up! It’s time to panic!”

And very little else. There are no details. No information on what is happening or where it is happening. No detailed description of the bad guys and what they are doing. And no specific advice on how to stay safe and alive other than an often vague message like “Shelter in place!”

The key is being fast. And not at all surprising in an emergency like the one at Ohio State, accuracy and context often come later.

Unless that smartphone sitting in your pocket happens to deflect a bullet, I’m not sure mass-alert technology will be a life-saving tool during an active shooter event on campus. Here are some of the reasons they are not perfect solutions.

  • Bad guys have phones, too. What if the bad guys are subscribers to your alert system and social media postings? That’s pretty likely if they are a student or work for the institution. Every message to the public can also alert them to what the college believes is going on. If you alert students to shootings on the west side of campus and tell them to move to the east side of campus, the bad guys can see that. If you tell students to shelter in place and turn out the lights, the bad guys can read that, too.
  • Shootings take seconds; phone calls take minutes. When a 911 call is made, this happens: a dispatcher takes down the pertinent information and starts to think about it. Maybe they ask some questions. Then they share it with police to respond to the call for assistance. Then the dispatcher or someone working with them types up, or selects from a predetermined group of messages, a note to send out by text messaging and social media to perhaps tens of thousands of subscribers. While this several-minutes-long, well-thought-out and practiced official process takes place, another unofficial one is already well underway. A hundred students in the area of the shooting have already sent 100 different and probably contradictory text messages to their friends, posted to Facebook, tweeted about the event and put it on Snapchat. And more than a few are in the process of putting themselves in danger to get photos and videos of the assailant and the attack in progress. It’s time for them to be a social media star, to go viral and generate some clicks.
  • Not enough subscribers. At some institutions, only a fraction of the student body and faculty and staff are signed up for the official text alerts. You can’t read what you don’t see.
  • Too many subscribers. Other colleges have the opposite problem -- thousands of family members, news media and the general public are signed up. That can slow the process of pushing out the message quickly to the people who need it most and first.
  • Lack of facts. Messages, especially initially, are often vague and perhaps even misleading. Police simply don’t have much detail. Consider the giant, terrifying stampede at JFK airport this year when someone thought they heard a gunshot. Thousands of people fled, throwing the terminal into chaos for hours. Those reports were wrong. Trying to follow the letter of the law as best they can, some institutions send out multiple alerts every week, and most of them are related to sexual assaults. Those messages are often vague and tied to when the assault was reported, not to when it occurred. It is not unusual for a victim to struggle with the issue of whether to report an assault for several days or even weeks before going to campus police. If the assault happened four days ago, should an emergency text alert be sent to 50,000 people the hour it is finally reported? In many cases it is. Subscribers become cynical when they read the words “Emergency Alert” and then receive old news.
  • System overload. When an earthquake centered in Virginia rumbled across the eastern United States around 2 p.m. on Aug. 23, 2011, Penn State was one of many institutions to immediately tap its text alert system. A couple things went wrong. Because scores of text alert systems on the East Coast all jumped into action at once, and the general public also rushed to the cellular system to talk and text with each other, the system ground to a slow crawl. A small group of Penn State officials sitting in a room together mapping out our response received the text alert we had ordered sent to students and employees over a 30-minute window. That’s a big difference in an unfolding emergency. And, of course, we could not assure any of our text alert subscribers that there would not be another aftershock five minutes later. We really had little useful information to share with them.
  • Slow delivery. One company brags that it “sets the standard for rapid, reliable message delivery.” It says it can deliver messages at a rate of 10,000 a minute. But what if your large state university has 70,000 subscribers? Is it OK for the message to take seven minutes to reach thousands of phones? Many people can be shot and killed in seven minutes. And in the best-case scenario, a couple minutes will elapse between that first gunshot, the call to 911 and then somebody pushing the send button for an emergency text.
  • The news media. In the middle of a crisis, what is the last thing you need? Yep, a dozen TV news vans and reporters live tweeting and transmitting video from the scene with a lot of frightened bystanders who have no factual information but are ready to speculate for Action News. When we had a sniper on Penn State’s campus shooting at students, the first rushed report from a major newswire service said two people were killed. It was actually one. And this was a professional communicator getting facts wrong. Our communications team lost time the rest of the morning trying to correct that information.
  • False positives. Panicked callers dial 911 or university safety offices because they “saw something.” A man with a gun? It’s legal in most states and increasingly on college campuses. Someone “Middle Eastern-looking spoke Arabic into a cell phone”? Give me a break. The admissions office is spending a lot of money trying to get Middle Eastern students enrolled at your university. And yes, they have cell phones, like every other person in the country above the age of 10. And they absolutely speak another language. Alert systems are put into action and the equivalent of campus SWAT teams respond to these false calls. The public also sends the messages virally on social media before the truth catches up with reality.
  • Turn off those phones! One rule many faculty members include in their syllabi and repeat all semester in the classroom is that students should put their cell phones away until class is over. Officials make the same announcements before guest speakers start talking and concerts begin. As I said earlier, you can’t read what you can’t see.
  • Too much information. One of the weakest links in most systems is how to sort through hundreds of simultaneous calls and social media postings and get police officers to the scene of an active shooter in the first seconds of a developing massacre.
  • Used for the wrong purpose. We once had the head of one of our campuses send out a text alert to tell everyone he was missing his keys. No, really.

Even with all those problems, and others, I still think we need robust text alert and social media systems in place on college campuses. But it is important we dial down the expectations for such systems and understand their serious limitations. The real key in limiting a mass shooting on your campus is going to be your police department -- their training, size and equipment. At Ohio State, an officer was on the scene of the attack and quickly ended it.

Until something better comes along, I will continue to start the first day of class the way I always do -- once we go through the syllabus and everyone in class has introduced themselves, I talk to my students for a couple minutes about their safety. I tell them where the two closest exits from the building are located and how to try to barricade the half glass door to the classroom -- the one that opens outward and has no lock -- to buy themselves a couple extra seconds until the police arrive. And to keep that cell phone in their pocket over their heart. It may do more good there.

Bill Mahon is a former vice president of university relations at Penn State, where he now teaches strategic communications in the College of Communications. He is a partner of University RepProtect, a suite of readiness services offered by public relations firm Ketchum.

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Ohio State University following Nov. 28 attack on the campus
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Southern California professor stabbed to death by student

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Bosco Tjan, a noted psychology researcher, was killed in the building where he worked.

Instructor charged in murder of faculty member

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Missouri State places instructor on leave after he is charged with stabbing to death a fellow instructor.

Student Held in Shooting Deaths of 3, Including Another Student

A University of Washington at Bothell student is being held by authorities as the suspect in the shooting deaths of three people at a party on Saturday, The Seattle Times reported. Many of the guests attended high school together in Mukilteo, a city outside of Seattle where the shootings took place. The suspect, Allen Christopher Ivanov, reportedly dated a woman who was killed in the shooting. One of the others killed was Jordan Ebner, a student at Everett Community College.

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Colleges respond to tragedy in Orlando amid fears of who may be on victim list

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Colleges in the area try to reassure students. Press reports say two victims were students. Nationwide, attack on gay club prompts vigils, discussion and sadness.

Colleges must not only respond to reports of sexual violence but also prevent it (essay)

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.

A valuable national conversation about the proper role for colleges and universities in appropriately responding to sexual and interpersonal violence and preventing such violence has followed upon the April 2011 Office for Civil Rights Dear Colleague letter and its 2014 and 2015 progeny -- the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and its concomitant changes to the Clery Act -- as well as the White House’s April 2014 task force report. Journalists' investigations, books such as Jon Krakauer’s Missoula and student activism have further pushed the issue to the national forefront.

Traditionally, the Clery Act and Title IX looked backward toward reporting and response. The Clery Act requires institutions to report certain delineated crimes occurring in specifically defined geographic locations in the previous three calendar years, and to maintain policies to properly respond to crimes and violations. Title IX has required that institutions respond to reported sex discrimination, including sexual assault, in a way that limits its effect and prevents recurrence.

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.

In the past, sexual and interpersonal violent crimes and violations have been rarely reported. The best data we have show that the majority of such violations are never disclosed to anyone, let alone police or college officials, and that reporting percentages are even lower in same-sex violence.

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.

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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.

Although the field lacks a longstanding base of evidence as to what works best, we have some initial examples of prevention programs that are making a difference. These include bystander intervention programs such as Green Dot, MVP and Bringing in the Bystander/Know Your Power, as well as homegrown programs such as Binghamton University’s 20:1 and SUNY Oneonta’s Know Violence. Other promising programs coming online include Culture of Respect and the dating violence-prevention work of the One Love Foundation.

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.

 

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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.

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Encouraging students to report threats of violence (essay)

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.

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MLA attendees march to protest campus carry law

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MLA members protest new state law at Texas Capitol -- and argue that guns have no place in college classrooms.

MLA plans literary protest against new campus carry law in Texas

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Literature and language professors will use the tools of their trade to protest a new Texas law.

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