Beware Promises You Cannot Keep

When evaluating campus safety and crisis plans almost every week, one cannot help but note certain patterns. One concern I have developed in reviewing hundreds of these plans over the years is the use of language that could be interpreted as a promise to provide a level of safety, security, or emergency preparedness beyond the organization’s ability to deliver.
 
For example, campus officials may want to avoid using terminology such as “Student and staff safety is our top priority” in official documents. First, this is rarely an accurate statement for colleges and universities, even those that have the best safety, security, and emergency management programs in place. Second, even if the institution has a top-flight program, officials might be hard pressed to validate that statement in a court of law. An astute attorney would likely ask campus representatives what percentage of the annual budget was committed to safety, security, and emergency preparedness. He would then point out how the relatively modest budget by percentage is committed to safety in contrast with other expenditures in the annual budget. Attorneys can get good mileage out of this category of assertions in a civil trial, or even when trying to press for a high out-of-court settlement. The motivation of campus officials in making these statements is understandable, but an adjustment in wording might be in order.
 
Evaluate the Written Word
Fortunately, it is not that difficult to avoid these types of problems. Simply evaluating written documents and thinking about the language used to describe safety procedures and intent reduce the number of phrases that are likely to come back to haunt the organization, while also communicating about safety in a positive manner. For example, one of the most commonly used words to create an unrealistic commitment to safety is “ensure.” A sample from an action step in an example of a campus crisis plan is typical: “University police patrol the campus 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to ensure the safety of staff, students, and visitors” could be rephrased to say, “University police provide patrol coverage for the campus 24 hours each day, 365 days a year to enhance the level of safety on our campus.” The message received by students and staff will be very similar, but the sentence is much harder for an attorney to twist in a civil action as long as the statement is accurate.
 
Avoiding these statements that can be subject to interpretation is more a mindset of awareness of proper word choice to convey the general idea and intent without inadvertently setting school employees up for failure. Highlighting phrases found in current policies, plans, and other documents that could create these sorts of difficulties, and then using these examples as a training tool for campus personnel who regularly draft documents relating to safety, can be an effective technique. Another approach is to require that risk management or safety personnel review all safety-related language in official documents before they are printed.
 
Think About Your Response
One way to quickly evaluate any language you are concerned about from this perspective is to picture how you would respond to an attorney’s question to prove the statement. If an attorney asked a campus official to demonstrate that her crisis plans were indeed “best practice” plans, she might have difficulty doing so. If, however, the language used to describe the plans was in keeping with a leading source, such as the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Officials or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, it will be much easier to prove. For example, describing campus emergency plans as “four-phase emergency management plans using the all-hazards approach” would be relatively easy to document. As long as it is accurate, this statement would be much easier to prove in court or in a media interview.
 
Take Time for Review

Taking the time to evaluate policies; plans; student and staff handbooks; and signs relating to safety, security, and emergency preparedness can clarify meaning and reduce the chances that the language the institution uses will be used against them later is not very difficult. Time spent reviewing your plans, policies, and other documents for these types of concerns will be much less than cleaning up the problems such wording can cause in the wake of a safety incident.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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