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Detroit Free Pree

Opinion: College campus shootings aren’t common.
Let’s not turn campuses into fortresses.

James Alan Fox Published 7:01 a.m. ET March 3, 2023 | Updated 10:45 a.m. ET March 3, 2023

 We may never fully make sense of the seemingly senseless attack on the Michigan State University campus that claimed the lives of three promising students and sent five others to the hospital with critical injuries. Regardless of what motivated the 43-year-old suicidal assailant to turn the MSU campus - to which he had no apparent connection - into his own personal battlefield, the impact on the grieving families and on the entire campus community will be long-lasting.

The shocking news and videos of a campus under siege - just 15 months after the deadly shooting at Oxford High School - also has a ripple effect well beyond the East Lansing campus with many concerned parents of students sensing that such tragedies are the "new normal." In a CNN interview shortly after the massacre, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel spoke for countless parents worried about the safety of their children when they venture off to college. "It is going to be a miracle," recalled Nessel, "If we get these kids through four years of college without some sort of an incident like this taking place, because they happen so frequently."

Without minimizing the devastating impact of the MSU shooting, it is important to provide some perspective on the actual risk. Despite the concerns of college students and their parents around the county that a similar tragedy may touch them personally, the facts indicate that such events are hardly likely. Since 1990, 26 colleges and universities in the U.S. have suffered shootings in which at least two members of the campus community were murdered, out of more than 5,000 institutions of higher education in this country. James Alan Fox

Despite the low risk, it is understandable that students and their parents may remain apprehensive and guarded. The fact that an active shooter might barge into a classroom at any time without warning can be one more reason to feel anxious about personal safety. However, excessive attention to the possibility of an active shooter on campus can inadvertently reinforce fears, and resources devoted to preventing mass shootings aren't being used to combat the other, more common threats college students face.

Compared to the thousands of college students who take their own lives each year, or perish as the result of binge drinking or drug overdoses, the risk of murder while on campus is exceptionally low. On average, 12 college students are fatally shot at school per year, be it as part of an active shooter incident or the deadly outcome of some interpersonal conflict. That, however, is out 16 million enrolled - less than a one-in a-million probability. Moreover, campus homicides represent only one-tenth of one percent of all gun homicides in the U.S. Indeed, most college students are safer on campus than in their communities back home.

Given these statistics, it makes little sense to attempt to turn free and open campuses into tightly guarded fortresses. It makes little sense to train students to "run, hide, fight" when such responses are fairly instinctual for adults. Similarly, investing hundreds of dollars on a bulletproof backpack of questionable effectiveness may do more to elevate fear by serving as a constant reminder of danger in the quad.

Most worrisome about the overreaction to rare events is that, ever since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, an increasing number of states are allowing concealed carry of firearms on campus. Michigan is one of only 10 states that strictly prohibit guns on college campuses, except, of course, for campus law enforcement. Hopefully, the MSU shooting will not prompt the state Legislature to reconsider that prohibition. In an environment where depression, drinking and drug use are commonplace, allowing guns into that mix creates a dangerous situation.

MSU Memorial 3.3.23

Unlike the MSU assault, the overwhelming majority of campus shootings are perpetrated by those attending, or who were previously enrolled in, the affected institutions. The key to reducing the risk of tragedy, including suicide, is to maintain a student-centered climate so as to help those who are struggling academically or emotionally.

Colleges might do more in terms of providing mental health services, not just to reduce the chance that some dispirited student will harm themselves or others, but to aid students dealing with loneliness, sexual rejection, academic failure or depression. In addition, caring for students in loco parentis should extend beyond just student services, but to the teaching faculty who are first-line observers to students in crisis, be it in the form of classroom misconduct, excessive absenteeism, or declining academic performance.

A supportive approach to confronting students at-risk may not prevent the next campus shooting spree, whenever and wherever it occurs. But in the process, such an emphasis on student mental-health can enhance the well-being of millions of students.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, and author of "Violence and security on campus: From preschool through college." Follow him on Twitter @jamesalanfox Contact the Free Press Editorial Page:

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