May 2, 2007

Review of Campus Security in the Wake of the Virginia Tech Tragedy

Holland & Knight Alert
Paul G. Lannon

The horrific shootings by a student at Virginia Tech on April 16 have focused the nation’s attention, once again, on safety at our schools and colleges. As we now know, crises with staggering consequences can happen at any time on any campus. Today, schools and colleges need to expect the unexpected, imagine the unimaginable and prepare accordingly. The tragedy at Virginia Tech confirms some old lessons and gives us some new ones to consider.

1. Identifying At-Risk Students

This lesson is as difficult as it is paramount. Identifying students at risk calls for professional judgments, and judgment calls are only accurate in hindsight. Nonetheless, depending on state laws, schools and colleges in certain circumstances may have a duty to take reasonable precautions with students who they know are at risk for harming themselves or others. To identify these students, schools and colleges need to know what to look for, what to report, and what to do with the information. Training is the first step. In conjunction with medical and mental health professionals, the campus community, particularly faculty and staff, should be trained to identify danger signals and report them to the proper authorities. This does not mean that teachers should flag every student who writes about violence or that campus security should frisk anyone wearing a trench coat. Rather, the campus community needs to be watchful for patterns of behavior that collectively raise genuine concern about a student’s health or safety. Examples of such behavior include increasing isolation or anti-social behavior, threats of violence to self and/or others, stalking, depression or other mental illness, and failure to comply with medical treatment.

2. Monitoring At-Risk Students

Once at-risk students are identified, there needs to be a plan for monitoring their condition. Administrators and health care professionals generally acknowledge this need, but there is no consensus on how monitoring is best accomplished. As a practical matter, students cannot be watched 24/7. Educational institutions are neither prisons nor asylums. Moreover, a disturbed student often resists help. Consequently, schools and colleges may need to take more aggressive steps to monitor the students they have identified as threats. Seeking involuntary commitment is an extreme step, but one that should be considered in the appropriate case. More frequently, schools and colleges will need to rely on voluntary health care plans that include regular meetings or assessments as conditions to continued enrollment. In doing so, schools and colleges must take care to comply with disability laws and avoid discrimination or retaliation against the disabled. Generally speaking, however, no student determined by health care professionals to be at risk to himself or to others has a right to remain on a campus if that student refuses to comply with reasonable conditions for remaining a part of the community.

3. Parental Involvement

There may be some new lessons here. Although parental involvement is generally encouraged, it can be counterproductive in some situations. The parents themselves may be the actual or perceived cause of the student’s distress, in which case notification may do more harm than good. Privacy laws, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), limit an institution’s authority to reveal educational or medical records without the student’s written consent. Nearly all privacy laws and patient privileges contain health and safety exceptions. Thus, when a student presents an imminent danger to himself or to others, counselors and administrators may disclose necessary information to parents – even if the student refuses to consent. The difficulty is balancing privacy rights against the interests of safety when an emergency erupts. The tendency is to maintain confidentiality because it encourages students to seek help and avoids breach of privacy lawsuits, but that choice also blocks potentially the most effective source of help for the students – their parents. Congressman Tim Murphy has already announced that he will introduce legislation to “more clearly define circumstances where colleges and universities can release information to parents, including risk for suicide, homicide or physical assault and further would ‘hold harmless’ colleges and universities, who after consultation with qualified mental health professionals” released the information. This legislation, if enacted, would provide much needed guidance and relief to colleges and universities struggling with this dilemma.

4. Policies to Include in Enrollment Materials and Student Handbook

Schools and colleges should consider publishing in their enrollment materials, as conditions of enrollment, specific policies that strengthen the institution’s ability to deal with at-risk students who are uncooperative. Important policies to consider include:

• Involuntary Leaves. Express authorization to place a student deemed to be at risk to himself or others on involuntary leave with conditions on return such as physician certification and anger management classes.

• Medical Evaluation/Certification. An express requirement for certification/medical evaluation from treating physicians and/or therapists for students placed on involuntary leave as a condition for eligibility to return to campus.

• Background Checks. Written consent for the institution to conduct a background check that includes criminal record information.

• Parental Involvement. Express authorization to immediately notify parents of any student subject to a certain level of discipline or deemed by the school or college, in good faith, to be at risk to harm himself or others.

5. Emergency Notification Systems

Ensure you have a comprehensive system that provides prompt and reliable communication to staff, students, parents and local law enforcement, both on and off campus. Relying on one method alone, such as email, is not sufficient. Emergency notification systems should cover electronic, audio and visual media to reach the maximum number of people in the campus community regardless of the circumstances. Consider remote systems such as the one reportedly in place at Wesleyan University that can send mass messages to cell phones and personal telephone numbers even when campus communications systems have been disrupted. Do not overlook old-fashioned but effective audio methods such as sirens, and visual media, including flashing lights and danger signs. Implement such emergency protocols after the first confirmed report of violence.

6. Develop Personal Relationships With State and Local Police, EMTs and Firefighters

Most schools and colleges, many of which have their own security services, understand how important it is to have established personal relationships with key emergency personnel at state and local levels. When a crisis occurs, you do not want to be introducing yourself for the first time. More importantly, however, a close working relationship means immediate notification of a serious event will be automatic in most cases.

7. Violence on Campus Prevention Checklist

Using a comprehensive checklist of critical items that your institution should consider in addressing the threat of violence on campus is an efficient way to help coordinate safety issues. Please see the following page for the Holland & Knight checklist.

For more information, e-mail Paul G. Lannon, Jr. or Harold W. Potter, Jr. at or, respectively, or call toll free, 1.888.688.8500.

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