The deadly attack at the Virginia Tech campus in April 2007 is yet another horrific chapter in the ongoing story of campus security. The possibility of extreme violence is the new reality for students, staff and the rest of the education community.

The task for school and university administrators is to adapt to that new reality and try to find ways to prevent such events from recurring. The plans will be imperfect. However, in striving to correct flaws in their emergency preparedness plans, school officials may be able to prevent a violent episode or intervene before it leads to tragedy.

“While we can never eliminate the threats posed to our campuses by crime or disaster, natural or person-caused,” Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt's Task Force on Campus Security says, “we can and must mitigate impact through effective all-hazard emergency preparedness.”

Reviewing plans

The desire for answers and to learn lessons from these tragedies drives education administrators and security professionals to sift through the evidence and find ways they can plug any holes in their security plans and emergency preparedness.

Missouri was one of many states that reacted to what happened at Virginia Tech by re-examining the readiness of crisis plans on its own campuses. In addition, federal agencies and other organizations have stepped forward with recommendations for improving campus safety.

When an attack occurs that is as horrific as the one that befell Virginia Tech, the immediate response of many government and education officials is that something must be done — crisis plans reviewed, recovery efforts bolstered, more security personnel deployed, more access control and surveillance equipment installed and more prevention programs initiated.

The responses to crises will vary from school to school and depend on the conditions and characteristics of each campus. As the Missouri task force notes, a research institution housing a nuclear reactor has security needs vastly different from a small liberal arts school in a rural area.

In North Carolina, the Campus Safety Task Force focused its report on the four phases of crisis management: prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. The report recommends that campuses establish threat assessment teams to help faculty, staff and students recognize signs of mental illness and improve their awareness about the resources available to help people who are a danger to themselves or others.

“Identifying potentially violent students as early as possible is one of the best preventive measures a campus can take,” the North Carolina report says.

One of the issues that arose after Virginia Tech was whether schools and universities risked violating student privacy if they shared information with other agencies about a student viewed as a potential threat. In response, the U.S. Department of Education is revising the guidelines related to the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act to clarify to what extent schools are allowed to provide private student information to others.

Schools should strive to remove the stigma associated with mental illness so that troubled students can seek treatment.

“Colleges and universities must challenge the prevailing social norms of students that frown upon seeking help,” the Missouri task force says.

In addition, campuses should make treatment more available. “Emotional crises often happen at inconvenient times, when students and other members of the campus community lack access to high-quality mental health services,” the task force says.