Of Ostriches and Lions

For several decades, major acts of weapons violence have occurred rarely but with some regularity in American institutions of higher learning. There have been hostage situations, multiple-victim shootings and detonations of explosive devices on our nation’s campuses. In fact, contrary to popular belief, the rate of serious assaults with weapons and homicides for college students is far higher than for the violence that more frequently garners media attention in our nation’s K-12 schools. I am still amazed at the number of institutions of higher learning that do not use inexpensive, proven and simple lifesaving techniques like multidisciplinary threat assessment to safeguard students. And of course, violence is only one type of tragedy that can occur on campus. Accidents and natural disasters can also result in serious injury and death.

When I present at conferences, I am regularly e-mailed and approached by campus safety officials who have become frustrated in their efforts to implement appropriate safety measures by administrators who underestimate the level of risk for their institutions. I also hear much frustration from local law enforcement, fire service and emergency management officials who feel many higher-education officials in their jurisdictions unrealistically downplay the level of danger on campus. Law enforcement officials and prosecutors in particular also often complain that higher-education officials in their communities seem more intent on keeping incidents quiet than in trying to address safety concerns.

Like the ostrich with its head buried in the sand while the lion lurks nearby, too many campus administrations have, for various reasons, failed to see the dangers that exist and periodically experienced tragic consequences. Unfortunately, innocent students, staff and faculty members are the ones who most often suffer the consequences of this lack of due diligence. And like the hyena waiting to scavenge a corpse after the kill, there is an abundance of legal professionals waiting in the wings to pounce on the opportunities presented when negligence results in death. It is nature’s way in our litigious society.

If we look at many of the schools that have experienced the most tragic events, we find they are not just good schools, but excellent schools by standards other than safety. They are staffed by competent faculty and attended primarily by nonviolent students who simply want to grow and learn through the college experience. Many excellent colleges and universities have suffered serious and lasting damage to their reputations after major incidents have occurred because of inadequate safety measures. Violence knows no borders. Breaches of safety can happen in your school regardless of its size, whether it is a public institution or private religious school, no matter your location or the crime rates in your community. Every day is a day for which you must provide a level of protection that mirrors the hazards found in our violent society. I speak here of major incidents of planned weapons violence; if we add the much more common single-victim shootings and edged weapons assaults, the scope of the problem is magnified considerably.

Just how much handwriting must be on the wall before everyone opts to read it? Colleges and universities typically provide a safer environment than many other places frequented by their students and employees. While it is extremely difficult to accurately gauge overall national campus crime rates because of well-documented and pervasive underreporting, it is clear that far more serious crimes occur than should and would be the case if safety was a priority in word as well as deed at every institution.

When lives are lost because of acts of violence on campuses around the nation, we repeatedly hear the words,“We never thought it could happen here.” When we look more closely, we often see a lack of adequate prevention, planning and response measures in schools where those in charge really did not believe“it” could happen. How many tragedies will it take to arouse those who are still dangerously unaware? How many more lives must be lost before safety is a serious consideration in every college and university?

Whether death and injury are the result of intentional acts or accidents, most serious incidents on campus occur when proper safety procedures are not implemented or followed. This situation happens most often because the actual level of danger is not recognized. Like a broken record, preventable incidents play out time and time again, resulting in much suffering, litigation and disruption of the process of education. Quality organizations work hard to anticipate and deflect negative situations that can impact them. Appropriate levels of safety can only exist when high-level administrators can frankly address safety risks. Unfortunately, those who are not willing or able to take an honest look at safety often prevent this from happening, with predictable results. Are ostriches prolific in your organization while the lions remain on the prowl?

Michael Dorn is an internationally recognized campus safety expert who has authored and co-authored numerous books on the topic. He is the senior public safety and emergency management analyst for Jane’s Consultancy. He can be reached at .

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.