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Executive Summary

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

  1. Violent crime, particularly homicide, is extremely rare both nationally and in Massachusetts.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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:
    1. Create an all-hazards Emergency Response Plan (ERP)
    2. Adopt an emergency mass notification and communications system
    3. Establish a multi-disciplinary team to respond to threats and other dangerous behaviors
    4. Review and train personnel regarding privacy/information sharing laws and policies such as FERPA and HIPAA
    5. Have an MOU with local health agencies and other key partners in the community
    6. Practice emergency plans and conduct training
    7. Educate and train students, faculty, and staff about mass notification systems and their roles and responsibilities in an emergency
    8. Educate faculty, staff, and students about recognizing and responding to signs of mental illness and potential threats
    9. Conduct risk and safety assessments
    10. Have an interoperable communication system with all area responders
    11. Ensure that all responder agencies are trained in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS)
  2. Site visits to five Massachusetts public colleges and universities highlighted that particular campuses had:
    1. Received free on-site training by the FBI for interpreting violent writings
    2. Installed CCTV cameras and an extensive electronic access control system
    3. Received free on-site Active Shooter Response Training conducted by the Massachusetts State Police
    4. Implemented comprehensive mass notification systems, including e-mail, text messaging, voice messaging, and web-based alerts, with one school having 100% enrollment
    5. Issued advanced equipment to campus police officers, including weapons, vehicles, and communication systems
    6. Conducted weekly Threat Assessment Team meetings that included members from campus police, residential life, counseling services, faculty, and the graduate and undergraduate school deans

Section Three: Existing Campus Safety and Violence Prevention Practices in Massachusetts

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. Over half of the schools (58%) have exterior doors that are in need of repair or replacement
  4. Fifty-four percent of schools do not employ CCTV cameras on campus
  5. Fifty-two percent of schools train their campus police officers in active shooter response tactics
  6. Sixty-four percent of schools have never conducted active shooter drills
  7. 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
  8. All schools report having mass notification technology
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. Eighty-eight percent of schools have not conducted a vulnerability assessment of their campus
  13. 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
  14. All schools report having an Emergency Response Plan (ERP)
  15. Sixty-five percent of the schools have a Threat Assessment Team (TAT)
  16. 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

  1. Early Detection and Prevention
    • Recommendation #1: Campus mental health services should be clearly available and easily accessible to students.  
    • Recommendation #2: Schools should offer specialized mental health services, not just generalized services.
    • Recommendation #3: Writings, drawings, and other forms of individual expression reflecting violent fantasy and causing a faculty member to be fearful or concerned about safety, should be evaluated contextually for any potential threat.
  2. Physical and Electronic Security
    • Recommendation #4: Schools should ensure that all exterior doors are properly constructed and lockable.
    • Recommendation #5: Schools should develop a reasonable plan for electronic access control in the event of an emergency.
    • Recommendation #6: Schools should install CCTV cameras throughout their campuses.
    • Recommendation #7: Schools should equip all classrooms with emergency signaling/notification capabilities.
  3. Campus Police Department
    • Recommendation #8: Campus police departments should have up-to-date active shooter response plans in place and train their officers in active shooter response tactics.
    • Recommendation #9: Campus safety staffing levels should be adequate for the size and character of the school.
    • Recommendation #10: Sworn campus police officers should be armed and trained in the use of personal or specialized firearms.
    • Recommendation #11: Schools should ensure that the campus police department has the equipment necessary to gain forcible entry into locked buildings and classrooms.
  4. Mass Notification
    • Recommendation #12: Schools should have a communications system that is interoperable with outside agencies.
    • Recommendation #13: Schools should establish a formal policy for use of their mass notification system.
  5. Policies and Procedures
    • Recommendation #14: Schools should have in place a formal policy outlining how and to whom faculty and staff should refer students who appear to have the potential for becoming violent.
    • Recommendation #15: Faculty and staff should receive training in identifying students at risk.
    • Recommendation #16: Faculty and staff should receive training in managing difficult interactions and situations.
    • Recommendation #17: Faculty and staff should be informed about the appropriate protocol in the event of a crisis.
    • Recommendation #18: Schools should include public safety as part of the orientation process.
    • Recommendation #19: Graduate student applicants should be directly queried regarding any unusual academic histories, as well as criminal records and disciplinary actions.
    • Recommendation #20: Schools should conduct vulnerability assessments at least once per year.
    • Recommendation #21: Schools should form mutual aid agreements or have Memoranda of Understanding (MOU’s) with agencies in the community having necessary support resources, such as mental health service providers, emergency medical response services, and law enforcement agencies.
    • Recommendation #22: Schools should have multiple reporting systems that permit campus community members to report suspicious behavior anonymously and conveniently.
  6. Emergency Response
    • Recommendation #23: Every college and university should review and update its Emergency Response Plan (ERP) on a regular basis.
    • Recommendation #24: Every school should form, train and maintain a Threat Assessment Team (TAT).
    •  Recommendation #25: The TAT should consist of representatives from various departments and agencies, minimally comprised of student services and counseling staff, faculty, police, human resources personnel, and legal counsel.
    • Recommendation #26: Each school should have a trained behavioral health Trauma Response Team (TRT), either on campus or through a contract or formal agreement.
    • Recommendation #27: Schools should plan for victim services and aftermath issues.

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.

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