Posted January 28, 2016 by Patrick Brown 

Campus Shooting Prevention: A Few Ideas

Shootings at educational institutions can be traced back to what appears to be the first on-campus death at the University of Virginia in 1840 when a student shot a faculty member. We can leap forward to more modern times and consider Virginia Tech in 2007, Oikos University and Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, and Umpqua Community College in October of 2015. The immediate and long-term impacts of these events rock campus communities as well as the individuals who make up that community. What can we do as professional administrators and educators to address these difficult situations?

In examining an approach to these tragedies on our campuses, the ACUI Campus Shooting Dialogue Planning Team is pursuing three specific areas: prevention, response, and recovery. I want to present some initial thoughts on prevention.

Prevention of a campus shooting is difficult. National law enforcement agencies have concluded that there is no reliable way to predict when or by whom a campus shooting might occur. The many reports by various agencies have also concluded that it is unfair to profile any one type of individual who might take such actions, yet we have seen that most shooters are men. Given that, the reports have identified some considerations such as personality traits and behavior, family dynamics, school dynamics, and social dynamics as having consistency in the many shootings of the past decade. So if a campus shooting is unpredictable, what should we do as union and activities professionals to prevent such tragedies?

It seems to me that our efforts in the prevention arena need to look at ways we can assist in (1) building campus community, (2) creating opportunities for structured dialogue across differences, (3) supporting and marketing the care/behavioral intervention efforts on campus, and (4) developing, supporting, and/or marketing bystander intervention programs on campus.

A foundation of the student union is its role in building community. We have a facility that hosts programs. We have staff who produce programs. We have spaces that serve as the living room for the campus community. It may be timely to revisit this core mission and reassess what any of us are currently doing to build and support our campus community, and define what we might do differently given prevalent campus safety issues.

The Dalai Lama has been quoted as saying, “The reality today is that we are all interdependent and have to co-exist on this small planet. Therefore, the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences and clashes of interests, whether between individuals or nations, is through dialogue.” Might we focus some of our programming expertise on creating active and responsive environments for learning through dialogue? Where do we start? When do we start? Who on your campus might have the skills and interest to facilitate this type of dialogue?

Many of our campuses, through the dean of students office or counseling services, have a care or behavioral intervention team that exists to work with students in distress. As student union professionals, we all should be aware of these services on campus and understand the importance of working in a variety of ways for student success. The stress of being a current college student is real, and we can do much to reduce individuals acting out against that stress by referring a student to these critical support networks. What can we do to also support our student staff, and how might they help support other students?

Similarly, many of our campuses have active bystander intervention programs. Although some of these programs might focus on addressing concerns surrounding sexual assault and misconduct, they can also be used to respond to a variety of behaviors that sadly seem to appear on a daily basis. At the University of Vermont, we have adopted a version of the “Step Up Program.” It is the cornerstone of a campaign to create a welcoming and safe environment for all, and to reduce harm and bias on campus. We have seen an increase of reports and interventions on sexual assault, hazing, and other areas of concern this past year.

Together we can begin to understand the importance of taking steps to prevent campus violence. Every campus is a unique environment composed of individuals affiliated with the campus, those that live nearby, and those who visit. We, as student union professionals, have access to facilities and staff that can assist in doing our best to prevent campus violence. Let’s work together and start today.

A few resources to consider:

Patrick Brown

Patrick Brown is the Director of Student Life and The Davis Center at University of Vermont.

Pat has more than 37 years of experience in higher education and student affairs. He has taught at the undergraduate and graduate level in between his time supporting great staff and challenging students to create meaningful change at the University of Vermont. Pat has served on the Conference Program Team for the 2012 annual conference in Boston and currently participates on the Campus Shooting Dialogue Planning Team. He earned a bachelor's, MEd, and EdS from the University of Florida and an EdD from the University of Vermont. In his free time, he has completed 11 marathons and annually grows over 2,000 garlic to ward off vampires and cook some incredible food.

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