It’s often said — and statistics back it up — that the campuses of the nation’s schools and universities are typically the safest places in a community. But the trying 2006-07 school year confirmed the need for those tasked with security at education institutions to remain constantly vigilant to protect students, staff and visitors from harm.
A disturbed intruder unleashes deadly violence on unsuspecting students in a quiet Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania. An unbalanced college student on a bustling campus in Virginia cuts down fellow students and instructors in a grim fusillade of gunfire. Education administrators and security personnel don’t have to look far to see painfully graphic evidence that violence can come at any time from any direction.
It is impossible for schools and universities to eliminate violence or dangers; neither can communities at large. But they can—and must—absorb lessons from the tragedies that have befallen other campuses as they incorporate new strategies and tools to make their facilities and grounds safe environments for learning and living.
On April 16, heavily armed student Seung-Hui Cho decided to release his pent-up rage by opening fire on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. Cho killed 32 people and injured another 24 before taking his own life. It was the most deadly shooting in U.S. history. While thousands of students, faculty and staff mourned the devastating loss, investigators began to look almost immediately at security procedures to determine what happened and what steps should be taken to prevent similar incidents.
Attention has focused on the adequacy of the mental-health resources available to students who need counseling or other intervention. In a presentation to the Virginia Tech Review Panel convened by Va. Gov. Tim Kaine, Jerald Kay, a professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on College Mental Health, said that depression and suicidal behavior have become more common among college students.
The Virginia Tech tragedy prompted government officials and administrators responsible for safety at the thousands of schools across the country to review their security arrangements to see if the tragedy suggested any flaws that needed correcting.
In the days that followed, President Bush directed three federal departments—Health and Human Services, Education and Justice—to suggest ways the federal government could help schools and state and local communities address security concerns.
Report to the president
The agencies delivered their report to the president in June, citing five key findings:
• Education officials, healthcare providers, law-enforcement personnel and others are not fully informed about when they are allowed to share information on people who may be a danger to themselves and others. “We repeatedly heard reports of ‘information silos’ within educational institutions and among educational staff, mental-health providers and public-safety officials that impede appropriate information sharing,” the report says. The report urges state and local governments and agencies to collaborate more effectively and to provide accurate information to ensure that family members, educational administrators, mental-health providers and other appropriate persons understand when and how they can share and receive information about mental illness. It also recommends that the Education and Health and Human Services departments clarify how a patient’s private information can be shared legally under the provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Those departments should look at “whether further actions are needed to balance more appropriately the interests of safety, privacy and treatment implicated by FERPA and HIPAA.”
• Accurate and complete information on individuals prohibited from possessing firearms is essential. State laws and practices do not uniformly ensure that information on persons restricted from having firearms is appropriately captured. Reports after the Virginia Tech shootings indicated that Cho would not have been able to purchase the firearms he used in the massacre if his mental-health status had been revealed in background checks. Only 23 states provide any information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) on persons disqualified from possessing firearms under federal law for reasons related to mental health, the report found. “For the NICS to be maximally effective in keeping firearms out of the hands of persons prohibited by federal law, including those prohibited by virtue of reportable and qualifying mental health history, all states need to understand the full scope of the existing federal laws and submit, or make accessible, appropriate information to the NICS,” the report states.
• Parents, students and teachers need to learn to recognize warning signs and encourage those who need help to seek it. Schools and universities should work to “develop cultures within schools and institutions of higher education that promote safety, trust, respect and open communication,” the report says. “[They should] create environments conducive to seeking help and de-stigmatize mental illness and mental health treatment.”
• It is critical to get people with mental illness the help they need. Meeting the challenge of adequate and appropriate community integration of people having mental illness requires effective coordination of community service providers who are sensitive to the interests of safety, privacy and provision of care. State and local agencies should “evaluate state and local community mental-health systems to ensure their adequacy in providing a full array and continuum of services, including mental health services for students.”
• For the many states and communities that have already adopted programs to address school and community violence, the challenge is putting these programs fully into place through practice and effective communication. The report recommends that state and local agencies communicate emergency management plans to all school officials, school service workers, parents, students and first responders. Schools and local agencies should have a clear communication plan and tools to communicate rapidly with students and parents to alert them when an emergency occurs. It also says the Department of Education should make sure that the information and guidance it supplies regarding emergency management planning is pertinent to the needs of institutions of higher education.
The focus on school security in the last few months is understandably centered on what happened at Virginia Tech and how to prepare and respond more effectively to such incidents. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11th attacks and anthrax scares, schools and universities directed greater attention to preventing and deterring acts of terrorism. After flooding from Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast, education institutions reviewed what they could do to improve their response to such natural catastrophes. The killing of five Amish girls at a Pennsylvania school last fall prompted officials to focus on how schools could better guard against an intruder coming onto campus. The next time violence or tragedy strikes a school or university, it might raise issues administrators have not anticipated.
That’s why education institutions should take advantage of all the resources and strategies available to them. For instance, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, responding to the Virginia Tech carnage, has urged schools to consider several steps when dealing with a potential threat:
• Increase physical checks of critical facilities during periods of increased alert.
• Establish a single point-of-access for each critical facility and institute 100 percent identification checks.
• Increase administrative inspections of persons and their possessions entering critical facilities.
• Assess the adequacy of video monitoring.
• Assess the adequacy of physical barriers outside sensitive buildings and the proximity of parking.
• Ensure the adequacy of emergency alert and communication systems for students, faculty, staff and visitors.
The federal government and other agencies and organizations have completed numerous studies and reports (see sidebar) that can help schools and universities address the numerous issues that make up an effective approach to security.
For schools and universities that are looking for guidance and recommendations about improving security and having effective emergency preparedness plans in place, a multitude of online resources are available:
• American Association of State Colleges and Universities, “Addressing the Challenge of Campus Security” (http://www.aascu.org/policy/special_report/campus_security.htm).
• ”Keeping North Carolina Schools Safe and Secure,” (http://www.governor.state.nc.us/news/pressreleases/Attachments/SchoolReport_Nov15Web_2.pdf).
• National Center for Education Statistics, “Crime, Violence, Discipline and Safety in U.S. Public Schools: Findings from the School Survey on Crime and Safety: 2003-04” (http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2007302rev).
• National Center for Education Statistics Planning Guide for Maintaining School Facilities, “Providing a Safe Environment for Learning” (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/maintenance/chapter4_3.asp).
• U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and National Center for Education Statistics, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2006” (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/2007003.pdf).
• U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, November 2006 one-hour webcast on school safety and emergency management (http://www.connectlive.com/events/edschoolsafety/).
• U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing, National Summit on Campus Public Safety, “Strategies for Colleges and Universities in a Homeland Security Environment” (http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/files/ric/Publications/NationalSummitonCampusPublicSafety.pdf).
• U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe And Drug-Free Schools, “Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide For Schools And Communities“ (http://www.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/emergencyplan/crisisplanning.pdf).
• U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, “Campus Public Safety Preparedness For Catastrophic Events: Lessons Learned From Hurricanes And Explosives” (http://www.iaclea.org/visitors/PDFs/LessonsLearnedReportFinal.pdf).
• U.S. Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services, “Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy” (http://www.hhs.gov/vtreport.pdf).
• U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Emergency Management: Most School Districts Have Developed Emergency Management Plans, but Would Benefit from Additional Federal Guidance” (http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d07609.pdf).
• U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Education Department, “The Final Report And Findings of The Safe School Initiative: Implications For The Prevention of School Attacks in The United States” (http://www.ustreas.gov/usss/ntac/ssi_final_report.pdf).
• U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Education Department, “Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide To Managing Threatening Situations And To Creating Safe School Climates” (http://www.ustreas.gov/usss/ntac/ssi_guide.pdf).
• Access Control and Security Systems, security in education articles and resources, (http://securitysolutions.com/education/).
• American School & University, Security Resource Center (http://asumag.com/security).
• California Department of Education Office of Safe Schools (http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/ss/).
• Center for the Prevention of School Violence (http://www.juvjus.state.nc.us/cpsv/).
• Center for Safe Schools, Pennsylvania (http://www.safeschools.info/?refpage=/index.html).
• Center for School Safety, School Climate and Classroom Management, Georgia State University (http://education.gsu.edu/schoolsafety/).
• Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, University of Colorado (http://www.colorado.edu/cspv/).
• Florida Gubernatorial Task Force for University Campus Safety” (http://www.dcf.state.fl.us/campusSecurity/).
• Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence, ( http://gwired.gwu.edu/hamfish).
• Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior, University of Oregon (http://www.uoregon.edu/~ivdb/).
• International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Officers (http://www.iaclea.org).
• Keep Schools Safe (http://www.keepschoolssafe.org/).
• National Alliance for Safe Schools (http://www.safeschools.org/).
• National Association of College and University Business Officers, Emergency Preparedness and Recovery Resources (http://www.nacubo.org/x2748.xml).
• National Association of School Resource Officers (http://www.nasro.org).
• National Education Association, School Safety Resources (http://www.nea.org/schoolsafety/nearesources-schoolsafety.html).
• National School Safety Center (http://www.schoolsafety.us/).
• Nebraska School Safety Center (http://www.nde.state.ne.us/Safety/index.html).
• School Violence Resource Center (http://www.svrc.net/default.htm).
• Security on Campus (http://www.securityoncampus.org/).
• The Safetyzone, a clearinghouse for school safety information (http://www.safetyzone.org/).
• U.S. Department of Education “Campus Public Safety: Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Protective Measures” (http://www.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/emergencyplan/campussafe.html).
• U.S. Department of Education, Campus Security (http://www.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/campus.html).
• U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education, “Campus Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool Website” (http://ope.ed.gov/security/).
• U.S. Department of Education, Emergency Planning (http://www.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/emergencyplan/index.html).
• U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Police Services, “National Summit on Campus Public Safety” (http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/files/ric/Publications/NationalSummitonCampusPublic
• Virginia Tech Review Panel (http://www.vtreviewpanel.org/).