The April 2007 massacre of 32 victims on the otherwise bucolic campus of Virginia Tech University sent shockwaves through college and university communities across America. Not only was it the most devastating violent episode ever to occur at an institution of higher learning, it was the largest mass shooting of any kind in our nation’s history.
The sense of serenity and security that characterized most campuses was suddenly shaken. And when another seemingly random shooting claimed the lives of five students in February 2008 at Northern Illinois University, college administrators everywhere had to confront a new reality in which the risk of campus rampage was not to be taken lightly.
Although the risk of a random shooting on any particular college campus remains especially small, the possibility of copycat behavior on the part of a isolated few who may find inspiration in the recent acts of campus shooters warrants special attention to prevention and emergency response, at least in the short term for as long as the contagion of campus violence is a concern.
In addition, although the risk for mass shootings and other incidents of extreme violence on college and university campuses is remote, it remains very real and the consequences are devastating to victims, families, and to the entire campus community. Given the special level of care that parents expect of colleges with regard to their sons and daughters, it is hardly wise or reasonable for college officials ever to ignore the risk, however limited. American colleges are under pressure from worried parents, as well as from the news media, to enhance campus safety by diverting scarce resources away from academic needs to security. Schools have the responsibility to do all they can to prevent and prepare for such attacks.
Predictably, the media tends to focus on the most extreme incidents of violence, such as mass shootings and terrorist threats. However, it is, in fact, far more common for college students, faculty, and staff to become victims of aggravated assault, rape, and robbery. Therefore, in addition to preventing and preparing for the most extreme forms of campus violence, colleges and universities must also take precautionary steps to prevent these more common forms of violence from occurring.
Media reports also overfocus on certain contributing factors to violence, such as mental illness, thereby reinforcing stereotypes. It is true that at times, violence is associated with mental illness, and the number of college students with severe mental illness has been steadily increasing over the years. Thus, not only must schools ensure that their campuses are physically safe and procedurally sound, but they must take steps to provide for the mental and emotional well-being of their student body. The vast majority of mentally ill students will never become violent, much less perpetrate a mass shooting. In fact, college students are 100 times more likely to commit suicide than homicide. Whatever the behavioral expression, it is critical that schools take every step they can to respond to the mental health needs of their students.
Reports that have concentrated primarily on the shooter's mental health (or lack thereof) may have failed to take into account other factors which are equally important, such as campus climate and social support. For the purpose of averting severe violence on college campuses, it is unwise to direct prevention efforts exclusively in the area of mental health services, as such a tactic would lead to neglect of other very important areas which need attention.
By providing an environment that ensures both the physical safety and mental well-being of its community, colleges and universities can improve the overall quality of life on campus. The purpose of this report is to help the public colleges and universities of Massachusetts reach this goal. Our task was to examine the nature and scope of campus violence, including homicide, sexual offenses, and aggravated assault.
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 studies 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 put forth our recommendations for how Massachusetts schools can best improve their security and violence prevention efforts.
Several activities went into producing the work represented in this report. These include:
- Meetings with the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education Campus Safety and Violence Prevention Work Group
- Collection and analysis of violent crime data from Massachusetts public colleges and universities for the years 2000 to 2007
- Assembly and analysis of a national database of college campus homicides for the years 2000 to 2005
- Analysis of campus safety data for 135 colleges and universities nationwide obtained from a recent survey sponsored by Reader’s Digest and published in February 2008
- Analysis of national campus law enforcement survey data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics for the 1994-1995 and 2004-2005 academic years
- A comprehensive review and analysis of 20 previously written reports on campus safety at colleges and universities around the country
- Development, implementation, and analysis of results from an on-line survey of existing campus safety conditions at Massachusetts public colleges and universities
- Site visits to five public college and university campuses in Massachusetts to review their existing violence prevention practices.
We would like to acknowledge various individuals and organizations for their assistance and cooperation: the Massachusetts State Legislature and Governor Deval Patrick for authorizing this important project; Patricia Plummer, Ph.D., Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education; Peter Tsaffaras, Director of Employee Relations for the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education; Marsha Medalie and Larry Berkowitz from Riverside Trauma Center; Reader’s Digest magazine; and the various individuals at public colleges and universities throughout Massachusetts who participated in filling out the crime incidence and campus violence prevention surveys and those who hosted the campus site visits. In addition, we note with appreciation the cooperation of Kevin Burke, Secretary of Public Safety and Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, Secretary of Health and Human Services. Finally, we would like to thank Tryntje Gill of the Board of Higher Education for her exemplary efforts throughout the course of this project.