Arming Security on Campus

Colleges and universities across the nation have been making the decision to allow security officers to carry firearms. Often this isn’t an easy choice for school officials, and the decision comes with campus-wide discussion. This month we talked with Bill Corner, Calvin College’s campus safety director. Located in Grand Rapids, MI, Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts school with a student body of 4,200, will be the region’s first private college to allow a select few of their campus security personnel to carry firearms. Corner discussed what led to the decision and the creation of the use-of-force-policy on campus.

Was there a specific incident or situation that led to the decision to allow certain campus safety officers to carry firearms?

Bill Corner: I think there were several events. One of the biggest ones was obviously after Virginia Tech. The administration asked us how we would rate our ability to respond to a threat in any given emergency, and I said that we wouldn’t do very well to respond to an active threat because our officers were unarmed. To reinforce that, we had an incident last fall with a student who had an unregistered firearm and quite a bit of ammunition. He had made comments about not liking women and other minority groups and had thoughts about doing things that had happened at Virginia Tech. I was the one who had to respond, and not having the ability to protect myself or other people was another thing that tipped the scales.

The administration decided that since we have former law enforcement officers working for us who have training and experience using firearms, we should take advantage of that fact. So subsequently, we developed the use-of-force policy. It is only those who are previously certified law enforcement officers who are carrying firearms.

Was there a campus-wide discussion of this policy? Were there arguments for and against the decision?

Bill Corner:
There was some. The process basically first and foremost was for us to create a use-of-force policy. I wanted to do it right, so we created the policy and spelled out specifically not just firearms but any use of force — what’s acceptable and what’s not, documentation, and training. It then went to our administrators, the president and his cabinet, for approval. From there it went to the faculty senate, and ultimately it went to the board of trustees where it was approved there as well.

[There was] not a whole lot [of involvement] with students, which was an issue with them because they felt they should have a little bit more input with how it was set up.  From our standpoint in putting the policy together, it would be awful hard for a college student to have input on how we set these things up. We did have a forum where the students could come and express their concerns. They also did have a protest; it was quite small. But overall, the general attitude has been that of general acceptance or support. I was actually surprised by the amount of support we’ve received from our students.

How long has it taken to implement your use-of-force policy?

Bill Corner:
It is still ongoing. From inception to getting this thing running, it will be about a year and a half. When I looked around, short of colleges that can have actual police departments, there was not a model for me to follow. It was kind of like creating this from nothing; a large part of the creation of the policy included looking at the state’s restrictions and what they allowed. And basically, we framed our rules and our procedures so they were in compliance with state law.

You mentioned that you put together your policy yourself. What is the normal arrangement for security officers carrying firearms on campus?

Bill Corner:
It tends to be campus police [who carry firearms]. In the state of Michigan, all public colleges and universities can operate full-fledged campus police departments. Private colleges usually use armed security or something called Public Act 330, which gives very limited police authority and is controlled by the same administrative body that controls accreditation for police departments. We are under the armed security part as opposed to Public Act 330, which the College chose not to do.

How do you expect this to affect campus safety?

Bill Corner: I don’t expect it to have a whole lot of difference besides day-to-day operations. Supervisors who come in contact with someone who is in progress of committing a criminal act will be able to protect themselves or a student or employee. It’s really just a self-defense tool for us and to defend others. I don’t expect our security officers to aggressively go after or chase anyone down or anything like that. It gives my employees a chance to respond and defend others.

Do you feel this is a fairly common decision now for campuses?

Bill Corner:
I don’t know if this is common yet. I’ve gotten a lot of interest in it from schools and a lot of coverage through the media about it. I think it is something that schools are going to look at in the future and see if it is something right for them.

Our college by and large is really safe, and we don’t have a lot of issues with crime. But if I look back over the years at the number of incidents we’ve had with firearms on campus, there have been several occasions. And a majority of times it is not one of our students, it is someone else coming onto campus with something, So from that standpoint, I think other schools are going to start looking at this and see how it goes other places, like here. And if it goes well with us, other schools will start to consider this option.