We Never Thought It Could Happen Here
- By Michael S. Dorn
- May 1st, 2004
For several decades now, major acts of weapons violence have occurred each year at American colleges and universities of all sizes. Major accidents, fires and other disasters have occurred at institutions of higher learning, as well. Hostage situations, multiple victim shootings, detonations of explosive devices, tornadoes and hazardous materials incidents have caused injuries, deaths, disruption as well as litigation at hundreds of campuses around the nation.
Contrary to popularly held notions, these events also occur in other nations, as the shooting deaths of 27 victims at a university in Montreal illustrates. Another popular but incorrect notion is that weapons assaults are a significant problem for K-12 schools but not for institutions of higher learning when far more of these incidents occur at colleges and universities. Following the intensive media coverage of the mass shooting at Pearl High School in Mississippi, we have seen a rapid acceleration of the number of attempts to commit major acts of planned school weapons incidents at K-12 schools.
For every incident that we have seen reported in the media during the past several years, there have also been a number of successfully thwarted planned acts of weapons violence. These have been stopped by communities where the threat was recognized and acted upon by those who were prepared because they understood that such incidents can take place in any school. We have also seen successes and failures of this type at institutions of higher education. If we look at the trends, it is clear that attempts to commit such horrible acts will be with us for quite some time. What is unclear is how many attempts will be successful because many colleges and universities still have not recognized and adequately addressed the danger that exists. For example, most higher education officials that I talk to from around the country report that their organization does not have a multidisciplinary threat assessment team. Much blood has been shed at colleges and universities when the violence could have been averted through this basic concept. Of course, the need for prevention applies to other types of hazards, as well.
Just when it seems that there could not possibly be anyone who has not understood the message that our some of our troubled youth have sent us time and time again, we find there are indeed those who still believe that their community or their campus is somehow exempt. If we look at many of the institutions that have experienced some of our most tragic events, we find that they are not just good schools, but excellent institutions. Incidents have taken place in communities with high, moderate and low violent crime rates. We have had incidents in all regions of the country and in most, if not all states. I speak here of major incidents of planned weapons violence. If we add the much more common single victim shootings and even more common edged weapons assaults, the scope of the problem is magnified considerably.
Our college and university campuses often provide a safer environment than many other settings. Some statistical data even tells us that university crime has decreased over the past decade. While it is extremely difficult to accurately gauge overall national campus crime rates due to pervasive and chronic underreporting of campus crime, it does appear that the violent campus death rate is down. Of course, recent research demonstrates that significant improvements in emergency medical care are likely the primary reason for the decline in our nation's homicide rate, as the number of people shot, stabbed and otherwise seriously injured during assaults has increased dramatically. When we have numerous violent campus deaths and many more nonfatal assaults each year in our nation, how much crime and violence is "acceptable"? Similarly, it is tragic when on-campus deaths occur from other causes ranging from heart stoppage to accidents when we know that the majority of these deaths can be averted with appropriate measures such as the installation of automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) and annual tactical site surveys.
When lives are lost because of accidents, acts of violence and other situations on campuses around the nation, we constantly hear the words "we never thought that it could happen here." When we look more closely, we often can see a lack of adequate prevention, mitigation, preparedness and response measures in place where those in charge really did not believe that "it" could happen. How many tragedies will it take to arouse those who are still dangerously unaware? How many more lives must we lose before safety is a serious consideration at every college and university in our great nation?
An internationally recognized campus safety expert who has authored and co-authored 19 books on the topic, Michael Dorn is the senior public safety and emergency management analyst for Jane's Consultancy, working through their offices in nine countries. He can be reached at .
Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.