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. Thus, it is prudent and imperative that colleges take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of students as well as faculty and other employees.
While shootings may be the most visible form of campus violence, they are clearly not the most commonplace. Security practices must also focus on other, more prevalent, 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.
This report has four major sections. First, we define the nature and scope of campus violence both nationally and in Massachusetts. Next, we review previous reports of study groups and task forces and discuss established best practices for enhancing campus safety and violence prevention. Third, we examine the current state of security and violence prevention at institutions of higher education throughout Massachusetts based upon a survey conducted of public colleges and universities. Finally, by comparing these results with established best practices, we advance 27 recommendations for how Massachusetts schools can best improve their security and violence prevention efforts. Below are the key findings from each of the four sections.
Section One: Definition of the National/Massachusetts Landscape
- Violent crime, particularly homicide, is extremely rare both nationally and in Massachusetts.
- Of the 13 fatal mass shootings that have occurred at American college campuses since 1990, eight were perpetrated by current or former students from graduate or professional schools. Therefore, graduate student disgruntlement should be a particular focus for higher education officials.
- Violent crime at Massachusetts public colleges and universities typically takes place within dormitories, occurs late at night, is argument-related, entails little or no injury to the victim, and involves a victim and offender who know each other.
Section Two: Previously Established Best Practices for Campus Safety and Violence Prevention
- A set of “best practices” recommendations were found to be common among 20 previous reports on campus
violence produced by work groups and task forces from around the country. These were:
- Site visits to five Massachusetts public colleges and universities highlighted that particular campuses had:
Section Three: Existing Campus Safety and Violence Prevention Practices in Massachusetts
- Eighty-three percent of the schools provide on-campus mental health services for students, and of these schools, 57 percent provide specialized services (e.g., substance abuse, suicide prevention, eating disorders) rather than just generalized services
- Eighty-one percent of the schools do not submit potentially violent writings, drawings and other forms of individual expression to a forensic behavioral science expert for review
- Over half of the schools (58%) have exterior doors that are in need of repair or replacement
- Fifty-four percent of schools do not employ CCTV cameras on campus
- Fifty-two percent of schools train their campus police officers in active shooter response tactics
- Sixty-four percent of schools have never conducted active shooter drills
- Eighty-four percent of schools have campus police officers who carry “less-than-lethal” weapons, and only one-third have police officers who carry firearms
- All schools report having mass notification technology
- Forty-one percent of schools report that their communications equipment is not interoperable with local law enforcement agencies, and two-thirds report that their communications equipment is not interoperable with Federal law enforcement or emergency management agencies
- One-third of the schools do not have a formal policy in place regarding what faculty and staff should do if they have concerns about a student or colleague who appears to have the potential for becoming violent
- Seventy percent of schools do not specifically train faculty and staff on how to recognize risk factors for students and employees who may pose a risk of violence
- Eighty-eight percent of schools have not conducted a vulnerability assessment of their campus
- One-third of schools do not have a mutual aid agreement with neighboring law enforcement agencies, and 48 percent do not have mutual aid agreements with surrounding communities for emergency medical training or support
- All schools report having an Emergency Response Plan (ERP)
- Sixty-five percent of the schools have a Threat Assessment Team (TAT)
- Sixty-five percent of the schools report that they do not have a trained behavioral health Trauma Response Team
Section Four: Recommendations for Campus Safety and Violence Prevention
- Early Detection and Prevention
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.