By Luther Luedtke
April 26, 2007
In the days since April 16, there has been soul searching on college campuses nationwide about the best way to maintain the health and safety of college students. While such focus can produce momentum, the answers are no different today than they were on April 15.
The shootings last week in Blacksburg, Virginia, are a stark reminder of the need for thoughtful, planned, and coordinated programs for student health and safety at all institutions. Whatever steps colleges take, overcoming existing fragmentation of services and programs must come first.
By their nature, universities are decentralized communities often covering many acres and dozens of buildings. This can lead to fragmented programs, services, and responses. Campuses offer student assistance through health services, academic support programs, crisis hotlines, victim services, residential staff, and campus safety, yet formal communication among them is rare. It is critically important that our colleges and universities take a deliberate, collaborative approach to student assistance, campus safety, crisis prevention, and emergency response across all sections of the campus and surrounding community.
If our colleges take the following five steps, our students will be significantly safer.
Develop a violence prevention and response plan. While most campuses have one, it needs to be fine-tuned on a regular basis. A sound plan outlines how all members of the community can identify and respond to students in distress, lists resources and services, offers advice about managing acute threats, and presents an emergency response plan. It should reflect specific campus needs using approaches supported by research. It requires a leadership team and ongoing discussion and education around campus.
Increase community and campus coordination. With more students living off-campus and community residents employed by the college, “town-gown” boundaries are increasingly permeable. Communication and coordination between campus and community authorities must be similarly open. More cities should follow the example of police officials in the Boston area who met recently with representatives from 19 local colleges to focus on ways to improve communication and security.
Create a crisis management team. A permanent, centralized committee should be established to receive and process concerns about students in distress or showing troubling behavior. These teams comprised of administrators, clinical staff, and campus security personnel share information and navigate tricky decisions about how to respond to students who may hurt themselves or others. Many campuses feel hamstrung in their response to troubled students; this team can help balance the health and safety of individuals with that of the student body. Importantly, this group can clarify what actions are appropriate and legally sound.
Identify and publicize behaviors of concern. Some campuses have convened a group of staff, faculty, and students to agree upon a list of worrisome behaviors (e.g., a dramatic change in appearance, a change in personality, continued absenteeism or tardiness, extreme bigotry). Once these are identified, campuses can produce educational materials to inform the college community, providing a framework for people to take action.
Strengthen student assistance programs. Student assistance, violence prevention, mental health promotion, and wellness can and should be under a central student affairs officer that reports directly to the highest ranking student affairs official. Currently, mental health providers at many large institutions report up through the mental health services administration, with no direct oversight by a dean or vice president.
College presidents who make this a priority will witness changes on their campuses. If we assess what is in place and make the needed improvements, we can create safer, healthier institutions where students can learn and grow—can truly thrive—and places where students in trouble can find the support they need.