Wednesday, May 31, 2017


The initial selection of a school based on its security policy is one of the best ways for parents to keep their children safe, but it can go only so far in reforming security for U.S. universities as a whole. Nor does the answer lie in simply improving technology. In the final analysis, the most expensive and sophisticated security system is only as good as the people in charge; the best psychological counseling is only as good as the individuals doing the counseling, and the best contingency or emergency plans are only as good as the people who implement them. Improving campus safety begins at the top. Therefore, correcting the current system under which school presidents and senior officials are selected is a critical part of the campus security equation.

Priority: Fundraising or Safety?

Somewhere along the way higher education in the United States lost its focus on students and scholarship, and we are paying a terrible price. We have to ask for a reexamination of how and why school presidents are selected. If faculty members are concerned about their safety and the safety of their students, yet school administrators ignore signs of abnormal violent behavior on the part of students or staff, then the atmosphere is counterproductive to learning and unequivocally counterproductive to safety.

A contributing factor to this deterioration in the quality of school leaders was the change to running state-funded colleges and universities more like businesses than institutions of learning—Virginia Tech being a primary example. With that change in attitude came school leaders with little or no background or concern with campus safety.

Professor Lucinda Roy points this out in her firsthand account of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, No Right to Remain Silent. She writes: “… Nowadays, some of those in leadership positions at universities have little experience working with students and almost no experience in the classroom. It has become more important to hire administrators who know how to raise money than it is to hire those who know much about students.”  She further asserts, “If you examine a typical state-funded university, you will find that many of its resources are dedicated to generating funds. As the public began to opt out of subsidizing public education in the past two decades, something had to fill the gap. A university that is focused on staying afloat cannot pay as much attention to students as it did in the past.”

Sometime in the 1970s state governments throughout this country decided to reduce financial support for state colleges and universities. A professor at Virginia Tech told me that when he joined the faculty in the 1980s over 60 percent of the university’s budget came from the state government. By 2011, he said, that figure was down to around 17 percent. He did not reveal his sources, but I have heard similar figures from others. The point is that state schools needed to raise money and turned to private sources of revenue. The net result has been that schools seek presidents who are more public relations experts than educators and few, if any, have had training in crisis management. Here again, Virginia Tech is a prime example of the serious consequences of this trend and the dangers in moving to the business model to run state schools. Under President Charles Steger’s leadership, Tech had signed a legal document with the state’s General Assembly allowing the university to act like a private institution and seek vast amounts of funds to offset the reduction of state funding. This move alone ensured that Steger would concentrate on fundraising above all else. This document is one of Steger’s signature achievements.

Robert Bickel and Peter Lake, in their exhaustive and insightful look at risk and responsibility on college campuses, point out that the net result of this move toward funding of state universities is that most college presidents today are “glad-handers” and fund raisers—not educators.

Even worse, most college and university presidents are woefully lacking knowledge of safety and security matters. Indeed, Virginia Tech’s President Charles Steger is a case in point. Read his biography or listen to his defenders—the repeated emphasis on how much money he has raised for the school drowns out all else.

In order to make our colleges and universities safer, we will have to spend hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars on such things as security training and equipment, and mental health programs. These expenditures cannot be tallied on a profit sheet—they are expenses on behalf of our nation’s future; they are long-term investments we must make to preserve this nation’s greatness. These expenses defy the business model and account sheets, but they can be—and are—crucial to saving lives.

To run state colleges and universities on a for-profit basis is not only counterproductive in the long run, but it has cheapened the quality of education. Look at it this way: if you pay for your daughter or son to go to college, under the business model some lawyers argue that you have paid money and established a contract, and your child is owed a degree. This is nonsense. In fact, all the money does is give a person access to facilities that offer the opportunity of getting an education. There is no guarantee that anyone, once enrolled, will meet the standards the school has set to grant a degree. The use of this business model has lowered standards.

At one point in my career I worked with a former senior member of an English Department at a major Washington DC area university. She designed and implemented a test that all graduating seniors from the school, no matter what their major, had to pass in order to get their degree. So many seniors were flunking that the alumni association and parents were up in arms and were threatening to cut off money. The school dropped the test.

I suspect that what happened to my friend has happened elsewhere. A few years ago I was asked to teach 140 intelligence officers in a major component of the U.S. Intelligence Community. At the end of the training I was asked by senior management to evaluate the quality of their officers. My evaluation was that approximately 43 percent of the people I trained were sub-standard in basic English; an English sentence was an alien concept for many of them. The vast majority of these officers had a four-year college degree.

More recently, in 2013, I was working for a component of the Intelligence Community and when I was through, the consulting company who had hired me asked for an evaluation of the students I had worked with. I reported that one of the students was seriously lacking in his abilities to be an intelligence analyst. The company asked me to rewrite the evaluation because of the “tone” of what I had written. They wanted me to say everything was just fine. I did rewrite, but the reference to the deficiencies stayed in.

Whether it is our students, or our fighting men and women, their lives seem to be expendable as long as a profit is made. To say that this country is in a sorry state of affairs doesn’t begin to describe the magnitude of the problem. Is it surprising then, to find that we are hiring glorified bankers and campaign managers to lead some of our greatest educational institutions? (To be continued)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


As a baseline for good campus safety, parents should also familiarize themselves with the rules and practices of colleges and universities that have campus safety policies and procedures. The following are two such schools, one state, and the other private.

Several years ago, before I began working on this book, I spent some time discussing campus security with the Chief of University Police, State University of New York—Oneonta (SUNY—Oneonta). He is truly an impressive man in charge of an impressive security operation on a large college campus. If every school in this country had a security plan like the one at Oneonta, our school grounds would be far, far safer places.

The campus security at SUNY-Oneonta is a police department; therefore its officers carry weapons. The Regional Police Academy is tied to, and works with, the campus police department. The academy runs a wide variety of specialized law enforcement courses, trains new officers, and trains officers to be instructors.

The chief told me that the SUNY-Oneonta campus has had an emergency plan in place since 1994, but since the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the school has tightened and improved that plan. The chief began by telling me that it is against the law to bring a weapon of any kind on a school campus in the state of New York. That law covers both state and private schools. Every state university in New York is required to have an emergency plan in place, and the Oneonta and Binghamton campuses were the first to meet the state’s new standard for security. Highlights of the SUNY—Oneonta plan include:

1.     The ability to lock down every building on campus (with the exception of the gym) with four strokes on the computer keyboard.
2.     Radio systems in all buildings for emergency use.
3.     Blueprints of all campus buildings are on hand in the police headquarters in case of an emergency.
4.     A Behavioral Assessment Team that meets every week to discuss student problems and activities. The group is made up of the Chief, the Director of Counseling, the Director of Residence Life, the Associate Vice President for Judicial Affairs, the Vice President of Student Development, and the Health Center Director.
5.     The Chief of Police has the power to act immediately and to take whatever action he deems necessary if an individual is thought to be a danger to self or others.
6.     A campus-wide siren for notification that there is an emergency on campus.
7.     The ability to notify all students, staff, and faculty of an emergency through NY ALERT—a cell phone/email/text messaging system. All New York State University campuses will have this system in the near future.
8.     A video and card access system for all campus buildings.
9.     A sophisticated key system for all buildings. The keys cannot be duplicated.
10.  The school gives its officers extensive training through a variety of courses including Active Shooter Course and Patrol Officers Course.
11.  A full-time Emergency Management Coordinator.
12.  The school is linked to major criminal databases in Albany.
13.  The school regularly reviews its crime prevention security analysis for all campus buildings.
14.  The University Police Department has an ambulance on hand, on campus.
15.  It is a state law that university police departments on state-affiliated schools must have a Memorandum of Understanding with the state police on immediate emergency response responsibilities and actions. SUNY-Oneonta has such a memorandum and maintains close ties with the New York State Police and the city of Oneonta Police Department.
16.    Students are given a full security briefing as part of their campus orientation.
17.   Each staff and faculty member has at her or his desk a bright orange Crisis Management folder for immediate and easy reference. The folder contains phone numbers and contacts. The subjects covered are: 
a.     Emergency Responses—Shelter in Place, Notification, and Building Evacuation.
b.     To Report an Emergency on Campus—Bomb Threat, Fire, Accident or Medical Emergency.
c.     Threat of Physical Harm from a Person or Persons—Threat by Email, Text Message, Phone, or Note—Threatening or Aggressive Behavior, and Policies and Procedures.
d.     Student Emergencies—Disturbed or Disturbing Emotional Behavior, Serious Illness or Injury, Threatening or Irrational Behavior, Crime in Progress or has been Committed, and Sexual Assault.
e.     Non-Emergency Student Problems—Disturbed or Disturbing Emotional Behavior, Illness or Injury, and Learning, Psychological, or Physical Disability.

In other words, if I wanted to know how SUNY-Oneonta would have dealt with a student like Cho, all I had to do was pick up one of these orange folders and run my fingers down the list. It raises the question, if such consistency in approach had existed at Virginia Tech could Cho’s behavior have been headed off while it was still a non-emergency student problem? There’s no way to know, but it is certain a consistently understood and applied policy towards troubling student behaviors makes it easier to prevent escalation of such problems to actual emergencies.

SUNY—Oneonta is not the only bright light. Smaller schools with smaller budgets are also working hard to improve campus safety. After visiting SUNY—Oneonta, I phoned Hartwick College, also in Oneonta, and asked to meet with the head of campus safety. (To be continued)

Monday, May 29, 2017


Awareness Is Key

First, parents and families have to understand the magnitude of the problem all of us face in trying to make our schools safer. Second, parents and families must be aware of the fact that the people in whom we put our trust, school administrators and politicians, may not have the safety of our loved ones as a primary goal. All too often a toxic mix of concerns for budgets, fundraising, and careers trump safety with tragic consequences. Third, parents and families must recognize that they play a vital role in ensuring school safety by demanding that people be held accountable for their actions or inactions.  Fourth, and finally, parents and families must put political differences aside and recognize that improving campus safety is a bipartisan goal for all to pursue.

The problem of school safety is multi-faceted, but in the final analysis, it all boils down to the decisions made by people in positions of responsibility. Some steps toward improving school safety are relatively easy; others are not.

Let’s look at an easy but critical first step that parents can take. It should be part of every family’s regimen in preparing to send their daughters or sons to college: school selection. In choosing a school, parents should familiarize themselves with the prospective school’s security procedures, policies, and emergency plans. The stark and sad truth is that when you send your son or daughter to a college or university, in many instances, you may be doing so at a terrible risk unless you have thoroughly investigated the school’s security plans and procedures.

Parents should be armed with questions about the school’s safety rules and procedures and should make it clear to school officials that they will not send their children to any school where safety is not the number one priority. Here are questions parents should ask:

Emergency Plans:

1.     What type of security plans and procedures does the school have and does the school regularly review and update both its plans and procedures?

2.    Does the school have a campus-wide warning system in place, such as sirens, text messaging, and cell phone warnings?

3.    Has the school brought students into the dialog on what should be done in the case of an emergency?

4.    Does the campus security or police have the authority to move immediately against anyone on campus who poses a threat to self or others?

5.    How quickly can campus security lock down or secure all buildings on campus?

6.    What is the relationship between campus security and the local and state police? 

H   How closely do they cooperate and do they have a coordinated emergency plan?


1.    How does the school define weapons?

2.    What is the school’s policy on bringing guns, or any weapon, on campus?

3.    What would happen to a student if he or she were found to have a weapon on campus?
Mental Health:

1.    Does the school have a plan in place that identifies aberrant behavior, and what steps will the school take to remove potentially dangerous individuals from the campus? (Parents should get a copy of that plan.)

2.    What is the school’s policy if a student is caught sending harassing or threatening emails to someone?

3.    Can a student, staff, or faculty member be directed to seek a psychological evaluation and treatment?

4.    How quickly are parents notified if a student is causing a problem or disturbance—or appears to be exhibiting behavior that others consider threatening?

I would advise you, the parents, to listen carefully to answers you get and do not accept vague generalizations—pin school officials down. Demand facts and proof—it may save your child’s life.

Accountability is a significant part of the problem. If school presidents and other officials have nothing to lose, if they will not be held accountable, what incentive is there to tighten campus security? Parents need to ask, “Do I want to send my child to a state with sovereign immunity; a state (such as Virginia), that will spend millions to cover up the incompetence of school officials, campus police chiefs, and mental health providers?” If people in positions of authority know they will not be held accountable if their decisions (or lack of decisions) result in death and injury, they will not act promptly to prevent Virginia Tech-style rampages.

While parents may not want to think about school selection this way, they need to look at schools that have the most to lose financially in the event of negligence leading to injury or death. Parents therefore need to know what legal recourse they have if their child is killed or hurt by someone on school grounds.  Virginia, for example, is one of the most difficult states to prove premises liability. Premises liability is the legal concept that a landowner is liable or responsible for injuries suffered by persons who are present on his or her premises. There must be negligence or some sort of wrongful act in order for the owner to be liable. (To be continued)


Sunday, May 28, 2017


“Death is a billion-dollar business. They can’t even
pass a law where it takes seven days to get a gun.
Why don’t you have to go through the same screening?
you do to get a driver’s license. It’s totally insane.”
~Jon Cusack, American actor, producer, screenwriter

After I wrote my first book on the shooting at the Appalachian School of Law, it was common for parents to thank me, but also to say the subject matter was so disturbing they could not read what I had written. They would usually then encourage me to keep working for campus safety. Most said they had children in university or about ready to enter; the subject was just too terrifying for them to even think about. But they are exactly the people who need to be the most concerned; they are the people with the most at stake—the safety and lives of their children.

No matter how painful the subject of school shootings and school safety is, all parents must think about it and think what they can do to protect their most valuable legacies, their daughters and sons. While we will never completely eliminate school shootings, a great deal can be done to dramatically reduce the number of these shootings and to make them a very rare occurrence. Parents can play a key role in this effort.

In upcoming posts I will be addressing a number of subjects dealing with what parents can do to help ensure the safety of their children:

1.     Questions parents need to ask of schools;
2.     Examples of schools where good policies are in place;
3.     Accountability—do states hold school officials (including holding school presidents accountable for incompetence resulting in death and injuries to others); and
4.     Do parents really want to send their children to a school in a state (such as Virginia) that pays school presidents over $800,000 a year, guarantees a retired state school president $100,000 in salary just to teach one course—but if their child is killed, limits the amount a private citizen can sue a school for to $100,000?

(To be continued)