Safety in Word and Deed

One of the easiest ways to be sued and lose relating to safety issues is to fail to follow written guidelines or well-established customs and practices without logical reason. Colleges and universities can also lose the confidence of the public as well by deviating from safety procedures inappropriately. Clearly, there are occasions where it can be ridiculous, cruel, and downright stupid to follow a policy. However, a lack of consistency can easily begin to cause serious problems, even deaths, as we have seen in some cases. A good framework can avert many potential problems.

In one case, university police were pressured by the administration of a large state university to cover up the murder of a co-ed by a basketball player. The embarrassment, loss of confidence in, and damage to the reputation of the university still exists though many years have passed since the criminal conspiracy by the universities’ leadership occurred. In another instance, a mentally ill professor with a knife came close to being shot by university police because of instructions — straight from the university president — to only to observe the man, who was screaming obscenities at students while brandishing the knife. The university feared negative images if officers tried to subdue him. Remarkably, a university official returned the knife to the professor after he was released from an involuntary commitment, and he again had to be subdued when he became violent. He was quietly fired, hired by another university, and was fired there after another such incident. It is a miracle that no one died during this series of botched situations. Some attorneys lie awake at night fantasizing about the goldmine such incompetence can create.

Though it is sometimes difficult to bring tangibility to the process, the following questions can be very helpful in keeping perspective when faced with difficult situations.

Is the decision fact-driven? The decision to deviate from policy should be fact-based rather than emotionally driven.

Do personalities have anything to do with the departure from the norm?The decision should be based on what people did or failed to do, not on who they are, who they know, or who they are related to.

Is the decision truly for the good of individual students, staff, or other affected individuals? This is an area where school officials sometimes deviate, to the detriment of the very students they are trying to help. In one instance, a homicide and suicide directly resulted from a state college’s common practice not to arrest students who committed crimes on campus. Efforts intended to help the student who committed the crime resulted in his death, along with the tragic suicide of the frustrated victim.

Is the decision focused more on the reputation of the organization than on the welfare of the people the organization serves? This is sometimes a tough question to answer honestly, but often puts things in proper perspective.

Is the decision in the best interests of the organization in the long run? How will deviation from established practice really impact the organization through time? What may be expedient today can be very harmful in the long run. A dean of students who authorized an event to be held without a university police officer being hired to help a sorority save money resulted in a gunfight that left one dead on the campus.

If you knew the details would be spelled out on the front page of the local newspaper, would you be comfortable in proceeding? Too often, campus officials trying to avoid bad press relating to safety issues create tons of it when they deviate without good cause. If the decision is appropriate, it should be defensible in the media.

Is the action against the law? This is usually the most clear-cut of all the tests.

How would those involved feel if their family members knew all the fact of the case? This is one of the toughest and most relevant tests of all of those listed. If you could not explain your actions to those who love you, the course of action is likely unjust.

Avoid the common pitfalls that could prove detrimental to your organization by developing a practice to thoughtfully and carefully vet decisions that deviate from any safety policy or practice. Establishing a process to guide deviations from established safety policies, practices, and procedures can save credibility, careers, and even lives.

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, non-profit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens Website 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