Student Development Responses to Campus Gun Violence
By Josh Roberts
I vividly remember when, several years ago at a different university, I was alone in my office and received the horrific report that an active shooter was on our campus.
In the early moments of that emergency, we had no additional context to provide our students, but we all instinctively knew that immediate safety measures were required. The campus alert system was activated, students huddled with professors in classrooms, lights were turned off, and most of the campus became completely quiet and still. Administrators cautiously peered out of windows to attempt to locate the danger and campus security was dispatched to neutralize the threatening situation. Though the sun shined bright that morning, our campus transformed into a silent ghost town within moments.
Sadly, far too many student development professionals have stories about active shooter events on their own campuses. The recent tragedies in Benton, Kentucky, and Parkland, Florida underscore the need for college campuses to address campus gun violence directly and offer proactive training and resources that will help maintain our campuses' safety and increase the degree of confidence our students feel in the security of their campus.
In light of recent events, more university presidents are actively engaging with their chief of security, general counsel, and Board of Trustees to make certain that college campuses are prepared to safeguard our most precious resources—our students. Even though these issues are receiving attention from university executives, there are many profoundly important and appropriate responses to campus gun violence that student development professionals can initiate as well.
Let us examine three ways that student development professionals can help care for and protect their campus:
SERIOUSLY ENGAGE EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT PROTOCOL TRAINING
Local and federal law enforcement agencies are often eager to provide awareness, skills, and knowledge on how to respond to an active shooter event. At Lipscomb, we engage local law enforcement as well as the FBI to help train and advise our campus safety officers on best practices and current trends in both preventative measures and incident responses.
Also, residence life staff, including student RAs, should be annually trained in campus emergency management protocols with particular attention on student and employee responsibilities during situations calling for a campus lockdown.
Campuses should regularly test their campus alert systems to ensure that you are able to communicate in real time about potential campus threats.
When students and employees on your campus are adequately trained on their behavior expectations during an emergency situation, then security professionals such as campus police/campus safety officers and local law enforcement are better positioned to effectively and quickly secure a dangerous situation. Because intense and dangerous situations often create unpredictable and irrational behavior, our campuses are well served by engaging the entire campus community with serious and thoughtful emergency management protocol training.
MENTAL HEALTH RISK AWARENESS & MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT
In addition to our campus safety drills, student development professionals are able to engage students in a variety of training such as how to evaluate social media posts and other student behavior that may indicate mental health concerns. Growing numbers of incidents of campus violence are precipitated by threatening communication and disturbing social media posts that indicate an individual is harboring violent thoughts. A university’s student body provides a significant source of campus crime prevention when they are trained to identify student communication that evidences a sense of hopelessness, despondency, deepening anger, and the potential harm of others. We want our students to be active in identifying moments when university intervention can help their classmates that struggle with mental health concerns. While it is impossible for the university to monitor all student communication and social media platforms, we know that troubled students often send messages because they are seeking the attention of their peer group. Let us work to make sure that the attention our student body responds with is postured towards healthy support and student care.
Each of our campuses has a wide variety of resources designed to help maintain student safety and to care for students in need of additional assistance. We should never grow weary of finding new and better ways to highlight the services offered by university counseling centers, chapel and spiritual formation programs, safety and security offices, behavioral intervention teams, and other university committees and offices. When we openly and enthusiastically discuss student assistance services, we honor those students that are utilizing the services, destigmatize the services, and equip students to be ambassadors for those services. As we all know, the increased activity levels and stresses inherent to today’s college student experience also increase the number of students on our campus that will benefit from open and honest dialog with professionals trained in pastoral care and counseling.
STUDY THE WAYS THAT NATIONAL CAMPUS VIOLENCE AFFECTS YOUR STUDENTS
The recent tragedies on school campuses around the country will affect each campus differently. Some students may feel unaffected by violence that occurs outside of their own community, while some students will feel significant anxiety stemming from tragedies from thousands of miles away. The variance of student reactions to news reports related to campus violence provides a timely opportunity for you to survey your campus regarding your student’s thoughts on campus violence. Key questions should include:
- To what degree do students feel safe on your campus?
- To what degree do students feel protected against campus gun violence?
- How often do students discuss potential campus violence with their friends?
- Who would students talk to if they felt that a classmate was harboring violent thoughts?
- And more...
In order for student development professionals to create a safe and secure campus environment, we must be well versed in the way that the national campus violence reports are affecting our own student population.
Like all of us, I pray that there is never another incident of campus violence, but even if we are successful in preventing violent incidents on our campuses, we must acknowledge that our students are becoming adults in a world that is unpredictable and, too frequently, violent. The training that universities provide students will help position them for success not just in our classrooms and residence halls, but in their future homes and workplaces.
As Christians, we have a duty to be peacemakers. This means that our actions become worship and holy service when we bring peace where the evil one seeks to sow dread. The Holy Spirit desires to be alive in each our students and fill them with hope and security even when students face the most uncertain circumstances.
JOSH ROBERTS is the Dean of Student Development at Lipscomb University where he is called to daily pursue the mission of equipping students to discover their created purpose and embrace their place in God’s story. He and his wife, Cristen, live in Franklin, Tennessee and are the parents of Graydon, Ensley, Blythe, Lawson & Webb.