Safety & Security (Protecting Campus Resources)
Stand By Your Word
- By Michael Dorn
- May 1st, 2017
While reviewing case files for civil actions, I sometimes find significant gaps between written safety policies and the evidence in the case file. While disturbing security camera footage of an incident can be bad for defendants, testimony and documents which indicate that dozens of previous incidents have not been addressed as required by policy can also make a bad situation worse. Evidence that a number of similar incidents have not been addressed properly can be particularly damaging as this can help plaintiff’s counsel demonstrate foreseeability. Records exposing defendants to viable claims of a cover-up and which raise legitimate questions about the integrity of campus officials can be damning during litigation. This can also damage the organization’s reputation for many years after legal matters have been concluded.
Cases of this type demonstrate the importance of achieving a reasonable degree of fidelity in campus safety efforts.
In this usage, fidelity means that the actions of personnel are in reasonable alignment with written policies, procedures and emergency plans. A significant disconnect between written guidelines and actual practice can result not only in extensive bad press and litigation but also, and more importantly, physical and emotional harm to students, staff and visitors. A court proceeding is not the best time to learn that such a disconnect exists.
In some instances, simply taking care in how policies, procedures and plans are worded can help create fidelity. Avoiding the use of absolute terms like “ensure,” “always” and “every” when they could create unrealistic expectations is one step in the right direction.
For example, changing the phrase “student safety is our number-one priority” to more accurate language, such as “student safety is a priority,” can improve defensibility while still communicating the positive message that safety matters. Taking care to use language that is realistic and reflective of actual practices is an important first step in creating fidelity.
Communication and Training
Once thoughtful guidelines have been developed, it is important to find reliable ways to convey to employees how they should be implemented. This is especially important for life-safety and high-liability areas. Policies related to mandatory reporting statutes, sexual assaults, alcohol and traffic safety are ones that regularly come up in litigation against higher education officials.
Testing and Evaluation
A common gap in campus safety efforts involves a lack of effective measurement through testing and evaluation. Many institutions of higher learning now utilize options-based active shooter training programs that do not require that participants be trained to discern when the use of force should and should not be used. To meet the standard of care for this type of use-of-force training, the training program should include testing wherein participants must react properly to more common weapons situations where the use of force could increase danger.
It is important that the evaluation approach require that participants not be told in advance which specific scenarios they will be presented with during testing. Simulation testing of this type has repeatedly demonstrated that some graduates of these training programs frequently opt to attack when presented with scenarios depicting hostage situations, people threatening to kill themselves with a gun or people walking with a gun in their hand at a considerable distance. Should a trainee be presented with an actual situation involving these far more common weapons scenarios and opt to throw objects at or attack the subject, the resulting legal and political consequences will likely be significant.
There are also a variety of effective ways to evaluate how closely actual practices match written prevention measures. Using security camera systems to spot check and archive video of staff practices for compliance with visitor screening is one example.
Documenting both successful application of written safety guidelines and identification of and appropriate corrective action for those instances where staff are found to be out of compliance with procedures is important. This not only helps to prevent incidents; it can demonstrate reasonable efforts to obtain compliance in the event of a civil action should an incident occur in spite of prevention efforts.
This approach can significantly improve the quality of campus safety efforts while creating positive evidence that reasonable efforts have been expended to verify fidelity.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.
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.