Safety & Security (Protecting Campus Resources)

Addressing Threats of Violence

Anonymous threats against schools and universities have become increasingly difficult to address. Many people in the campus community are experiencing higher levels of anxiety due to government cautions indicating increased risks of terrorism combined with the emotive and intensive media coverage of campus shootings. This makes it easier for a single individual to cause alarm via the Internet or even a note written on a restroom wall. While it has become harder to address these concerns, there are strategies that can help campus officials respond more effectively to these challenging situations.

Work With Your Community

Enhance your ability to quickly discuss a threat with representatives from local law enforcement, fire and emergency management agencies. An increasing number of campus organizations have purchased systems that allow web conferences so that key personnel can meet rapidly in a virtual manner to work together when they cannot assemble rapidly in person. While people tend to focus on law enforcement for these situations, many types of incidents have aspects beyond law enforcement expertise. An important example of this would be a threat pertaining to hazardous materials. Be sure to include the two additional key disciplines of the fire service and emergency management or Homeland Security office in your community. You should also consider participation of public health agencies in the event of a threat relating to a biological incident.

Conduct Exercises and Drills

It can be extremely valuable to conduct tabletop scenarios for several different types of situations. Local and state emergency management personnel can often script, facilitate and evaluate tabletop exercises for key administrators, campus safety or police personnel and representatives from area public safety. Working through a series of scenarios in limited amounts of time for each can be particularly helpful. In our experience, this leads to faster and higher-quality decisions. Your team will make better decisions faster if they have had a chance to practice as a team in real-time fashion.

Focusing not only on the credibility of the threat, but the best tactical responses to the threat can be important. There have been attacks where aggressors have communicated threats that were intentionally designed to appear to be a hoax before carrying out an attack. This type of attack occurred in London many years ago. Terrorists taped their call to the police and then sent the tape to the media after people were killed in a bombing. Poor quality bomb threat protocols contributed to this situation. We still regularly see very outdated response plans for an array of attack methodologies, especially as we have become so fixated on mass-casualty shootings. This may seem basic, but we have seen glaring failures of this type at the U.S. Capitol, the attack on the El Al ticket counter at the LAX Airport and in many other cases.

Plan Ahead for Emergency Notifications

I also find it to be helpful to periodically run a series of easy-to-conduct simulations with the personnel who craft your messages to inform the campus community of threat situations via your emergency notification system (ENS). Institutions of higher learning today usually have an excellent means to rapidly push out messages. However, many do not take the time to conduct timed drills so the people who craft and send out the messages can do so more effectively and rapidly. This is easy to do and can really improve the quality and speed of getting appropriate messages out to the community should a situation involving a threat occur.

It can also be helpful to periodically reexamine your plans to make sure that certain key areas are well covered. For example, your plans should have separate and distinct protocols for chemical, biological and radiological incidents. Many campus emergency plans lump these together even though they are actually three very different types of events with significantly different action steps being appropriate for each. In some cases, plans do not even have protocols for these difficult and potentially deadly situations. These important protocols have often been ignored due to the intensive focus on active-shooter incidents in recent years.

Taking the time to develop a strategy for addressing anonymous threats can lead to improved decision making. The stresses of limited information, resources and time make some of these situations difficult to address under the best of circumstances. Developing and practicing a multidisciplinary threat evaluation and management approach can prove to be invaluable for these difficult and stressful situations.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

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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