Campus Safety: Why We’re Moving in the Right Direction, and Why It Won’t Work.

I had a premonition that this year’s in-service would be about active shooters on campus just after Aurora.  I’m glad we did and it heartens me that there seems to be a [forgive the expression] paradigm shift.   Greg Crane (?) made a frank and trenchant assessment of what has been wrong with campus responses to active threats, and offered workable revisions to policy that make sense.  Instead of approaching threat response as a top-down authoritiarian or executive decision reaction, Greg,  and other speakers on Verbal  Judo and Dealing with Difficult Students encourage faculty to react as a distributed system. “Faculty and students are always on the scene first and so are our real first responders,” Crane told us.  This is cutting edge information management theory and I applaud it.

Unfortunately,  this timely discussion has opened up some old wounds for some faculty, and for others some glaring inconsistencies give them pause.

This infrastructure for response won’t matter unless certain entrenched police and counseling protocols are re-assessed.  Well intentioned and selfless non-faculty campus representatives  can react in ways that serve the individual student over the collective class good: we have to address that risk and it’s repercussions.  We say safety is our first priority, but how semantically accurate is that?  We could make things completely safe, but at incredible financial  expense and at the cost of education praxis/merit and student rights.  What we need is a balance and we need to have a dialogue about what costs are reasonable and where to draw the line, and faculty must be in that dialogue.

For example:

  • The text-based early alert using cell phones is worth keeping, but does not address what will happen in a classroom if or when terror strikes.  Teachers and students shut down cells in order to build community and engage in the present moment.   Best practices and considerable research has established this.   (I’ll look through sources and add later, and readers help me out).  This is particularly important in Gateway classes (required core classes with insufficiently high success rates). Each classroom needs a land-line phone, and/or an Instant Messaging app on the teacher’s computer that operates whenever the computer is on.  I’ve been in several meetings where faculty have brought this up, but this seed of this truth has yet to find purchase.  This financial cost would be small, but the stakes are high.  Adding distractions to a classroom is never a good idea.  I occasionally use Twitter or hand-helds (cells, pads, PC’s, etc)  in class, but like video, for very short and controlled purposes and never for more than 10 minutes at a time.
  • Information on safety included in the syllabus may cover liability, but may be counter productive.  It’s essentially a terms of service agreement (ya know, the biggest lie on the internet). When an alarm goes off or when you  hear gunfire in your classroom, who’s going to dig through their backpack for that info, or log into email to find that link?  Yes that information needs to get to the students, but no, the syllabus isn’t the place for it.  The syllabus has changed over the last 20 years to a contract, and that contract has gotten too broad, so that it isn’t taken seriously.  Students see 30 page syllabi (that’s average, mine are often much longer) and it’s too much information (TMI), so it  gets shoved  to the bottom  of a bag where it composts for 4 months, OR as I try to use it, pulled out briefly once a week to use as a reference resource.  There are already posters on the wall, and like our speakers said students will be looking to faculty as leaders, and they should be.  There is an analogy to be gleaned from watching Law and Order. Evidence must be shared, but if a valuable document is buried in  tons of irrelevant papers, the letter of the law has been served but not the spirit.  We must be vigilant against that.
  • Communication is key, as we were repeatedly told, but communication has to go in at least  two directions.   We can’t have information going to a central location and stopping. we heard repeatedly that in past disasters all  information was there – but it was spread out.  A counselor said they need faculty to send them information and they can communicate to police, etc.  Essentially a “triage” team will act as the head, and the hands and feet will send information of trauma up the neural pathway and a committee in the brain will choose how to react.  This is a familiar metaphor, and unfortunately it presumes that “One hand needn’t know what the other is doing”.  It’s too easy for academics to work in silos, and to avoid that they need to be informed:
    • Honest and frank information  key – misinformation breeds mistrust.
    • Faculty deserve and need advance warning when dealing with chronic behavior issues.  Stigma is a legitimate concern, but faculty are good people, and we’re talking behavior not mental ability.  Safety must be a priority and  faculty have a right to know about potential threats.  Finding out that a student who has arguably assaulted people in my classroom has been doing that and worse for semesters, and that they’ve actually gotten better – does not inspire trust or confidence.
    • Students deserve what information they are legally entitled to as well.

As noted in almost each scenario, faculty gave warning through appropriate channels before the tragedies.  But the vital info went somewhere and died, and those who could have used it were the other faculty on the scene when violence happened.  Faculty are already doing the documentation and reporting, so that doesn’t seem to be where changes need to be made.  Clearly communication needs to flow back to faculty.  Faculty need to know.

My next post – things we’ve done well.