Safety & Security (Protecting Campus Resources)

Seeking Balance

The series of devastating back-to-back attacks this fall in Las Vegas, Manhattan and Sutherland Springs, TX, naturally resulted in an increased sense of fear among many Americans. Each of these deadly attacks was frightening and caused significant national impact. These attacks are also representative of the continually evolving changes in the perceptions of risk which can result in challenges for campus officials with limited time, energy and funding to address a wide array of risks. These dangers include relatively common security issues as well as those relating to extreme violence. Ignoring either rare and catastrophic events or those types of violence that usually result in fewer victims per incident, but cause far more fatalities overall, can be dangerous.

Raising Awareness, Not Fear

Another challenge for campus officials is achieving a balance between problems associated with increasing fear and anxiety and, conversely, the lack of awareness that can result in dangerous complacency. Finding a balance between the “it won’t happen here” attitude and the “sky is falling” viewpoint is especially challenging when it comes to the types of situations that precede most homicides on higher education campuses.

The majority of these homicides do not garner national media nor social media discourse. In addition, the most common forms of homicide are not hyped as often by vendors and special interest groups that frequently manipulate data on mass-casualty violence. As a result, it is now very common to encounter people who ignore the significant risk of traditional violence while focusing on the possibility that they will be the victims of a mass-casualty shooting or terrorist attack. Helping members of the campus community find a reasonable balance in order to help them prevent and respond to both common and catastrophic acts of violence is challenging, but imperative for safer campuses.

The challenge for higher education security and police personnel to raise awareness for the variety of plausible threats on campus when the public is highly exposed to a steady deluge of inaccurate information is getting progressively more difficult. While inaccuracies in news reporting of campus violence have been a problem for decades, increasing exposure to massive amounts of inaccurate information on the Internet has become an even greater challenge for campus officials.

Look Closely at Statistics

For example, media reports frequently rely on active-shooter statistics and terrorist attacks that are demonstrably inaccurate and highly inflated. This inaccurate data is also widely circulated via social media. The widespread and repetitious dissemination of the flawed data following each mass-casualty attack can seriously undermine campus crime prevention efforts.

One seriously misleading “study” purports that there is now an average of one mass-casualty shooting in America each day. By including in the count more murders relating to domestic violence, gang activity, robberies and other far more common types of shootings as mass shootings, this type of data makes it more difficult to educate members of the campus community on steps people can take to help prevent the most common types of shootings. This is because many people now mistakenly believe that most people who are murdered with firearms are killed in active-shooter events.

Multiple organizations have compiled data including other types of shootings while citing the Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and Las Vegas concert shootings, the Pulse Nightclub attack and other deadly active shooter incidents as examples. This can mislead the public. This, in turn, causes some people to dismiss the need to follow basic crime prevention measures designed to address the most statistically likely types of homicides.

For example, students and staff may not find it to be a priority to avoid displaying cash in public, walking alone at night or paying attention to warning signs for the potential for domestic violence in dating relationships because they are so focused on the threat of active-shooter incidents.

Those tasked with the protection of students, staff and visitors for institutions of higher learning should develop thoughtful, factual and helpful information efforts. This is important for an institution to meet the standard of care should litigation relating to violence occur. More importantly, these efforts can be among the most reliable approaches to help members of the campus community prevent and prepare for all types of violence.

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 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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