The Facts about Violence on College Campuses

Welcome to this article on issues dealing with violence on college campuses. The threat of violence at college campuses extends to students, faculty, staff, and the general community.

We will look in this article at strategies for how to prevent violence and how to deal with violence if it happens. Let's get started.

A look at the challenges of violence on college campuses

We see a challenge today for colleges as they face pressure to address violence and threatening behavior. The threat can come from stalking, domestic violence, students, and employees. Violence on a campus can take the form of school shootings, arsons, bombing, cyber attacks, and terrorist acts. Examples include:

  • A letter from an individual who is concerned about the dress of female students on a campus and has a history of harassing students and staff

  • The targeting of a university laboratory because it uses animals in research with professors receiving death threats

  • Calls from a parent who saw a reference to a bombing on a campus with the person posting the reference saying it was a joke

  • A cheerleader getting a threatening letter

What can help

Here are approaches that can help with the preventing and dealing with campus based violence.

  • Develop a plan to address threats to a campus

  • Develop flexible strategies you can apply to various situations like anonymous and identified persons

  • Look at the behavior of the violent person and the vulnerability of the victim

  • Use a prevention strategy

  •  Identify risks

  • Minimize the potential for violence

  • Look at the motive of the violent person

Let's look now at techniques and approaches that have worked at various campus locations.

Keep strategies flexible and communication free and open

In some cases, a rigid and zero tolerance strategy may not work best. A rigid policy may not provide a safe and secure environment. It can contribute to an effective approach in the extreme. Discipline could be too harsh for a campus population and could lead to rage and alienation. Because of harsh discipline individuals will not report about suspicious behavior for fear a student or coworker will get too harsh a punishment.

Communication is an important element. Here are some factors to consider.

  • Communication flow should be free

  • Communication improves when employees, faculty, and students understand the violence prevention policy

  • Law enforcement staff and administrators must provide information about the policy of the school concerning threats of violence

  • Allow reporting via email, text messaging, and other web based methods

To increase awareness, the campus population should know this about potential attackers.

  • They may not make a direct threat to a target

  • They may express an intention to attack

  • They could make menacing statements

  • They could post intents on a social networking site

  • They could provide a written assignment full of hate

Alerting the general population at a campus to these signs is a good practice.

What to do with threatening communication

A faculty member can get a violent text from a student. This can happen with an assignment for a class. What should the teacher do? They should let report the text for threat assessment. The student could be asking for help. Or the student could be signaling an intention to act violently and assault someone.

A teacher could hesitate to report the text. The teacher could worry about alienating students in the classroom. But it would be a mistake not to report the text. Campus law enforcement personnel or other professionals need to look at the text. They also need to work with the teacher to approach the student.

Here are examples of what officials should evaluate to determine if there is a threat.

  • Drawings

  • Essays

  • Anything that shows hostility, suicide, or homicide

  • Anything with weapons, masks, trench coats, or other disturbing material

Imagine a scenario where a hostile student tells a counselor of hatred of another student who is wealthy. The counselor sees a video online where the hostile student says he hates the wealthy student. The hostile student also posts a picture of a handgun and a firing range. The hostile student also writes in a class assignment about how unfair it is for wealthy students to attend the same school that he does and how this fills him with rage. The counselor can put together these pieces and understand the risks the hostile student provides on the campus. The counselor can also attempt to help the student before an act of violence happens.

Getting input from various sources

When managing the threat of violence on a college campus, a best practice is to get input from various sources. This can include faculty, students, mental health providers and counsellors, student affair groups, and law enforcement staff. Work with the community is also required.

When dealing with possible threats from a student we should consider several aspect including academic, social, residential, and work aspects. Campus life can be complex. Teams can work on a campus to deal with a possible or actual crisis.

Consider the shootings at Virginia Tech and note the scenario where a student states wanting to do something similar.

  • This student showed disturbing behavior.

  • The individual tortured animals and drew a target circle around the face of a person.

  •  In his backyard he built a shooting range.

  • The college used crisis management strategies.

  • A team included the school and local officials.

  • They interviewed the subject and learned he had a semiautomatic handgun and rifle.

  • He agreed to enter a hospital for evaluation and was later committed.

  • Many felt this prevented an act of violence that was sure to come otherwise.

Look at those who pose a threat

A best practice is for those on college campuses to focus on who poses a threat. If someone says they want to kill people on a campus, a team can focus on this individual. A team can take extra security measures and plan for evacuations, for example, if needed. The team can minimize the chance for violence and if it happens, deal with it effectively. The team should take all threats seriously. The focus should be on an actual attacker and not someone who threatens. Threats do not always materialize into action.

Expelling a student who expresses a threat of violence is not always an effective way to prevent violence. Here are some factors to consider.

  • Expulsion may not neutralize the chance of violence

  • Use expulsion as a last resort

  • Use expulsion if needed to keep a campus safe

  • Expulsion could increase the chance of a violent event

  • Expulsion could trigger a violent event

If expelled, the former student could still come back to the campus and complete an act of violence. Expulsion is an option. Authorities should carefully consider the results of the option. An option that could better minimize the chance of violence could be to monitor the student with the help of a counsellor. Probation is another option that could be more effective. Expulsion could isolate the student and not minimize the chance for violence.

  • The team should look at how the school can help the student

  • The team should consider treatment options

  • Counsellors could help

  • Supervision could help

  • Interventions could help

Another option is to treat the student and then allow a return to the school.

An overview on prediction, prevention, and response

Let's look now at a overview on the campus and how to predict violence, assess threats, school shooting, and related legal issues. Concerning predictions of violence here are some items to consider.

  • no single profile applies

  • most shooters are male

  • shooters generally have used weapons before a campus attack

  • shooters generally have a history of attempting suicide

  • shooters tend to plan their campus attack not make it an impulsive act

Concerning legal concerns in general privacy laws do not prevent action against someone who poses a threat of violence. Laws do not stand in the way of doing what will protect people at a school. In an emergency a school can act.

More about campus shootings

What can we do to prevent violence like shootings on college campuses? Here are some ideas.

  • Involve students. Consider hiring students as security officers. They could receive training on how to act during an emergency such as a shooting.

  • Prepare students for shootings. Schools are a likely target for shootings. Since the shootings can happen fast law enforcement may not be there to help. Being prepared would help students feel safer. Getting an emergency text message can help too. Students can be prepared for what to do once they get such a message. This could be similar to training for fire emergencies.

  • Understand a student may not ask for mental health services. Colleges should make these services more of a focus. Students are under pressure to get good grades and feel they cannot take time out for mental health treatment. Counsellors should keep this in mind and encourage mental health treatment.

  • Enforce strict gun laws on campuses. There should be education for those who buy guns. There should be background checks also.

  •  Include violence prevention as part of what is taught at schools. If you discuss prevention of violence, this can help. Required workshops could help.

Collaboration is a good approach

If an individual is a serious threat to a campus, officials should work together on an approach. If a campus works with outside groups together they can try to help the individual. All involved should also work with legal counsel to make sure of what is legally allowed. 

The FBI can provide assistance with threat assessment. They can work with a campus to develop risk management strategies.

Here is an example of how collaboration can work.

  • Complete threat assessment via collaboration

  • Have a single point responsible for coordination

  • Have a single point responsible for monitoring

  • Use officers trained in threat assessment

  • Include a psychologist

  • Include the human resources department

  • Include student services

Here are more factors to consider in developing a strategy for handling an individual who poses a threat of violence on a campus.

  • Give primary responsibility for campus security to the university police department

  • Provide a means for individuals to ask for a threat assessment

  • Provide a means for individuals to report disturbing behavior

  • Encourage reporting of disturbing behavior

  • Train individuals on prevention and reporting

  • Create a task force dedicated to dealing with campus violence

Task force members can work with student affairs groups and human resources to provide guidelines on prevention and what to do in the case of campus violence. The task force can also work with police to monitor incidents. This can include domestic violence, restraining order, and allegations of stalking.

A bigger view

We have now looked at violence at a college campus. But all schools can and have been the target of violence including mass shootings. Here are some ideas on what we can do to help prevent violence is schools.

1.    Talk to students. This can include parents. Ask students about possible violence. Students may not volunteer this information. Adults should take the initiative.

2.    Set rules for students. Students need clear rules. Students needs to know the limits and what is expected. This includes rules at home. Help students to control anger and manage stress. Violence should not be an option.

3.    Look for warning signs. A sudden change can be a warning sign. See if a student is withdrawing from friends, getting poorer grades, quitting activities, and having problems with every day issues such as sleeping and eating. If a student is lying that is a warning sign. Counselling can help if there is concern.

4.    Intervene. This includes parents. If a student could harm someone including themselves, intervene. A health professional and counsellor at school could help.

5.    Stay involved if you are a parent. A student may not want a parent to chaperone at a prom or other event, but parents should do this anyway. Be involved in activities and schooling. Get to know the teachers in the life of a student. Go to school events. Help with homework. Support school rules.

6.    Join a violence prevention group. Data shows that crime rates can decrease when a community gets involved with a violence prevent group. This can include violence at schools.

7.    Organize a violence prevention activity. Work with schools, parent groups, and community officials on this.

8.    Work on a plan. Help the school develop a violence prevention and preparedness plan. Develop guidelines on how to be aware of possible problems and what to do in case of an incident.

9.    Deal effectively with media. In case of an incident if you are a member of a group such as a parent-teacher group you could issues press releases about issues that could help the community in the event of an incident.

A quick summary

We have looked in this article at issues dealing with violence on college campuses and schools in general. We looked at strategies for how to prevent violence and how to deal with violence if it happens. We hope you found the information in this article of value.