Campus Security

It's All About Risk

"The torment of precautions often exceeds the dangers to be avoided."
--Napoleon Bonaparte


The recent shootings at Virginia Tech have focused public attention on the safety of students on our campuses.  Just how safe are they anyway?  What do we need to do?

The Real Risk
Ironically, FBI statistics show that the murder and non-negligent manslaughter rate in the United States has been steadily falling since 1993, from 9.5 per 100,000 people in 1993 to 5.6 in 2005. College and universities are even safer.  In 2005 there were five murders and non-negligent manslaughters on campuses out of a population 6.3 million students.  The resulting 0.08 per 100,000 students is less than 2 percent of the national average.  Even after this month's horrific events, our campuses are five times safer than the national average.  Stated differently, even if an event like the one at Virginia Tech were to happen every year, a student is far more likely to be murdered while home on summer vacation than on campus during the academic year.

Business Continuity Management
The shootings at Virginia Tech are a textbook example of the need for Business Continuity Management (BCM).  And, yes, terrorist attacks, whether by a group or a deranged individual, are part of textbook discussions of BCM.  BCM is more than disaster recovery.  Disaster recovery is the act of recovering from a disaster, whereas BCM is a broader term that includes anticipating and planning for bad things as well as disaster recover itself.  (See my article in the April 2005 Issue of Campus Technology magazine, "Before the Disaster.") 

BCM typically consists of four steps:
  1. Project Initiation and Organization;
  2. Risk and Vulnerability Identification;
  3. Business Impact Analysis and Risk Reduction Strategies; and
  4. Business Recovery Planning and Testing. 
Most of the current discussions in the popular press about what happened at Virginia Tech have focused on portions of step 2 and 3.  How can we identify and mitigate risk?  

The Real World
The problem, of course, is that people don't respond rationally to risks.  They respond to perceived risk.  The fact that our campuses remain relatively safe havens hasn't prevented a wave of second-guessing, such as, "Why didn't campus officials lock down the campus sooner," or, "If (insert your organizational target here) had only done (insert your personal quick fix here), lives might have been saved."  That there may be rational responses to these questions doesn't change the fact that those outside education just "want the problem fixed."  

Campuses need to think carefully through their answers to concerned parents and the general public.  We need to be prepared to outline our campus policies and procedures to protect students and notify our campus community in the event of disaster.  And, yes, we need to be able to articulate and educate society in general of the tradeoffs involved in risk management.  For example, we could make our campuses "gated communities" with airport-like security, but the resulting cost increase would mean that many students could no longer afford a college education.  Our explanations must be in terms that the average citizen can understand.  In short we need a carefully thought-out Business Continuity Management plan that is communicated throughout our campus community.  The alternative is to have our campus policies and procedures and even our technology whipsawed back and forth by public fears and those using scare tactics to peddle a quick fix.  

Broader Issues
The Virginia Tech massacre raises issues that go beyond the safety of students on campus--issues that are much more fundamental than BCM. 

A few weeks after the shootings at Virginia Tech an Illinois high school student was arrested for writing an essay containing violent content.  The assignment was to write an essay about whatever came to mind and not to judge or censor what they wrote.  The essay contained passages such as "Blood, sex and booze.  Drugs, drugs, drugs are fun.  Stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, s…t…a…b…puke.  So I had this dream last night where I went into a building, pulled out two P90s and started shooting everyone, then had sex with the dead bodies.  Well, not really, but it would be funny if I did."  The writer, a straight-A student who had never been disciplined in school, argued that his exaggerated creative writing was being taken out of context.  School officials described the essay as disturbing and inappropriate.  

What is the responsibility of an institution to intervene if there is evidence or even a suggestion that a crime might be committed?  The movie Minority Report, in which projections of crimes that might be committed in the future form the basis for imprisoning individuals in the present, comes to mind.  What are the rights of an individual to free speech?  Can a student write an essay that contains graphic violence?  If a student cannot, is it acceptable for such content to be found in a neighborhood library or bookstore?  What is the tradeoff between censorship and individual freedom?  Those aren't technical questions.  But the higher education community needs to begin thinking about the answers.

"Prudence keeps life safe, but does not often make it happy."
--Samuel Johnson

About the Author

Doug Gale is president of Information Technology Associates, LLC (www.it associates.org) an IT consultancy specializing in higher education. He has more than 30 years of experience in higher education as a faculty member, CIO, and research administrator.

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