Steven A. Adelman,
Behind the ivy covered walls of America’s colleges
and universities, there has long been a refrain about campus violence – It
can’t happen here.
Even before 33 people died at Virginia Tech, however,
there was little reason for complacency. Just two weeks before that April
16, 2007 disaster, two people were gunned down at the University of
Washington. In 2003, a man fired hundreds of rounds during a deadly seven
hour standoff at Case Western Reserve University. In 2002, seven people were
shot to death in separate incidents at the University of Arizona and
Appalachian School of Law.
In the national outcry for safety measures following
Virginia Tech and the February 14, 2008 shootings at Northern Illinois
University, colleges and universities have struggled with conflicting
demands by students, parents, administrators, lawyers, and legislators. From
a legal standpoint, one certainty is that the old standard of care, benign
neglect, no longer applies. Put another way, while no one solution will
prevent violence or its close cousin, litigation, many things can be done,
and are being done, to prevent the next campus catastrophe.
Generally, the steps taken in the first year after
Virginia Tech fit into one of two categories: (1) improving notification of
an incident on campus; and (2) upgrading processes for assessing student
behavior. With the lawyerly caveat that the following is not an endorsement
for any particular product or procedure, here is what some schools are doing
to reduce the likelihood of violence on their campuses:
A direct legacy of Virginia Tech, where two hours and 11 minutes passed from
the first gunshots until the university’s email to students, is that much
attention and money has gone to improving notice of an incident while it is
• New notification
technology. The most headline-grabbing moves have been the mass
notification communication systems such as the Omnilert e2Campus alert
system, the MIR3 inCampuAlert system, or AtHoc’s IWSAlerts mass warning
system. However, even the best technology can be foiled by human
Before cutting library acquisitions in order to fund
campus-wide voicemail, mass text messages, or email blasts, a school needs
contact information for enough students to make the expenditure worthwhile.
Schools that require students to affirmatively provide their contact
information for a mass communication network have far lower rates of
compliance than those that use previously provided information unless
students choose to opt out.
• Traditional security technology. The new technology is “sexy,”
but many campuses have also upgraded their low-tech security by applying the
principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (“CPTED”). Even
on a tight budget, safety can be improved by adding lighting, sirens,
security cameras, or two- way radios to allow safety officials to broadcast
over loudspeakers from remote locations. Significantly, these forms of
technology not only increase campus safety during an emergency, they add to
the feeling of safety at all times.
• Streamlining safety
bureaucracy. Many schools have consolidated communications
between safety- related offices, often coordinating efforts through new
positions such as Emergency Manager or Vice President for Safety. The value
of being able to quickly get accurate information to the decision-maker is
obvious. Whether information technology is brand new or old school, there
still must be someone to compose the messages and authorize them to be sent.
Assesing Student Behavior
Unlike buying technology or designating a safety czar, colleges and
have had much more trouble finding legal and ethical ways to identify
potentially violent students before they act.
Some student rights advocates argue that it violates
the First Amendment for a school to review a student’s Facebook or MySpace
pages. Constitutional due process has been cited as a reason not to expel
students for stories they submit in creative writing classes, since faculty
rarely have training to identify mental illness. Universities have good
reason to fear lawsuits where their efforts to deal with mental health
threats are characterized as political persecution or profiling.
Similarly, for every well-meaning administrator who
would establish a behavioral review team to scrutinize stu-dent mental
health records, there seems to be an objection based on federal privacy law,
such as the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”), the Mental
Health Developmental Disabilities Confidentiality Act (“MHDDCA”)or the
Health Insurance Portability and Account - ability Act (“ HIPAA”).
Like all new, or newly discovered problems, campus violence presents
difficult choices. Every university would gladly spend more for safety
technology, if that money could be spent without sacrificing the school’s
academic mission. And some mental health inquiries must be permissible, even
at the price of formerly sacred civil liberties. If a university is going to
get sued for its actions, far better to defend against a student’s indignant
lawsuit for infringing his civil rights than against his parents’ tearful
lawsuit for their child’s tragic death.
Steven A. Adelman is an attorney
in Phoenix, Arizona. He is on the faculty of IAAM’s Academy for Venue Safety
and Security, for which he will be teaching the inaugural “AVSS Law School”
this Summer. Mr. Adelman can be reached at email@example.com