Pervasive media images of mass shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University have raised the specter of serious violence on college campuses. But by any measure, the risk of serious violence on campus is remarkably low, particularly in its most extreme form. Although the chances of serious violence may be remote, the potential consequences can be devastating and long-lasting. Colleges must respond proactively to the risk, as parents rightly expect a special level of care for their sons and daughters while they are away at school. Therefore, it is prudent and imperative that colleges take steps to ensure the safety of students as well as faculty and other employees.
Nevertheless, the costs — fiscal and otherwise — of any security measure should be considered when developing a safety plan. College and university officials must be wary of measures that penetrate the campus environment beyond what is reasonable. Not only do colleges face fiscal constraints limiting the expansion of security protection, but security measures should in part be governed by the community’s desire for a free and open campus. Colleges and universities offer unique challenges to security because the nature of their existence depends upon a free flow of individuals and expression. Care must be taken not to reinforce exaggerated perceptions of vulnerability. Indeed, it is critical not to promote fear and anxiety while attempting to reduce risk. A prudent and well-conceived security plan should be designed around these considerations.
While shootings are the most visible forms of campus violence, they are clearly not the most common. Security practices must also focus on other, more commonplace, forms of violence such as sexual and physical assault. Current best practices, taken in combination with research, demonstrate the essential role of collaboration among all service providers in the prevention of violent incidents on college campuses. The benefits of this collaboration range far beyond identifying and intervening with persons at risk for extreme violence, but should also reduce statistically greater perils such as suicide and fatalities related to binge drinking and substance abuse.
This review of best practices and current research underlines the need for careful and measured planning for campus safety. Campus safety is not simple or universal; it requires an analysis of each school’s unique situation, character, setting, population, and mission. The recommendations in this report should not be addressed in isolation; rather, they should be considered in the broader context of the campus's approach to prevention and security and should take into account the views and perspectives of a wide array of stakeholders in consultation with professionals and experts. Such collaborative efforts may ultimately offer the soundest security and safety plan for any institution of higher education.