June 23 , 2008

Commentary: How Not to Prevent Campus Shootings


Q. In what way is going off to college like, yet unlike, taking off on a commercial airline flight?

A. While for both there is the remote possibility of being killed tragically before the journey ends, the airlines do not traumatize and scare passengers by overplaying precautions.

New to the curriculum at many colleges this fall will be instruction for students in survival skills. The training material will not be like Clemson University's "College Survival Skills" Web site, which features useful advice on note taking, studying for exams, and dealing with professors. Rather, a new security DVD, Shots Fired on Campus: Student Version, demonstrates tips and techniques on how to survive an "active shooter" attack on campus, like the deadly episodes at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University..

Apparently, many colleges are buying the message, quite literally. According to the Center for Personal Protection and Safety, the security-consulting company in Spokane, Wash., that produced and distributes the DVD, dozens of colleges and universities around the country have preordered the 20-minute instructional video at $495 a pop and an additional $1,000 for a campus Intranet site license, even before its release.

This latest commercial venture is hardly the first to capitalize on parents' widespread fears that a copycat shooter could strike their son's or daughter's campus. A similar video on the market informs students on how to find safe refuge behind a barricaded door and how to "outsmart a bullet" by running in a zigzag pattern, making it difficult for a shooter to take steady aim.

Indeed, with every tragedy there is a business opportunity: Two dads in Massachusetts formed a security company to produce and sell special backpacks lined with bullet-deflecting shields. Another Internet-based vendor offers backpacks with protective metal straps covering vital organs. The backpack comes with the recommendation to fill it with weighty books—such as a heavy-as-lead Introduction to Chemistry—suggesting that your life might be spared if the fired projectile is slowed by the text. Actually, I am aware of at least one student who survived a campus shooting when a bullet struck her statistics book. Nevertheless, while I admit not to having done empirical research on the matter, it would seem just as wise in the unlikely event of a campus shooting to drop the 40-pound weight and flee as swiftly as possible.

At the same time, many campus police departments are preparing for the worst by staging "active shooter" role-playing drills. Some, quite responsibly, are involving only campus-safety officials and local authorities in training drills undertaken during school vacation. Others, not so prudently, are including students in their tactical exercises. Some students volunteer as victims, lying still in pools of ketchup, while others huddle in corners waiting out the realistic drama. But given the incredibly low risk, is it worth the emotional trauma?

A state college in North Carolina blundered terribly last February by failing to alert everyone on the campus about a planned exercise. As part of the drill, a gunman toting what appeared to be a weapon burst into an American foreign-policy class, terrifying seven unsuspecting students and an instructor who later remarked that he was "prepared to die at that moment." The assailant held the class at gunpoint for 10 minutes, telling his hostages that he would kill at least one of them.

The class survived because the gunman was a volunteer and the weapon fake, all part of a staged exercise intended to test the university's system for responding to a possible campus attack. College officials had alerted students and faculty members with e-mail and text messages, but not everyone had received or read them. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the simulation—at least physically.

College officials could certainly take a lesson from the airlines when it comes to emergency preparedness. As a very frequent flier, I always presume that the pilots and the flight attendants have been through a variety of emergency-training drills. But for us passengers, the crew will simply indicate what to do in the unlikely event of a "water landing," which, by the way, is just a euphemism for "crash" as large commercial planes don't really land on water. Most of us in the cabin don't pay much attention to the verbal safety instructions or review the illustrated material in the seat pocket, while we send off our last minute e-mails on our BlackBerrys. If you're like me, you choose to believe that the young man with green hair and tattoos who is sitting in the exit row will be able to assist.

Imagine if one day the flight attendant announced that passengers and crew were to engage in a crash drill. The oxygen masks suddenly drop down and everyone has to evacuate through the emergency exits by jumping down slides onto a foam-coated runway. If that ever happened to me, I'd be so traumatized that I would hesitate to fly again.

Thus, as with the usual preflight ritual on the plane, a few simple instructions at student orientation on escape strategy during a shooting would be sensible. However, overpreparing students unreasonably risks intensifying their fears and anxiety.

There are those, of course, who insist that one can never be too well-prepared, even for a rare event like a campus shooting. That may be, but there is an additional and critically important difference between preparing passengers for the unlikely crash and readying college students for an improbable shooting. Airlines don't inspire dangerous ideas by reciting crash drills. By contrast, there are a few students for whom the notion of wreaking havoc on their schoolmates may seem like an exhilarating idea. Obsessing over the unlikely possibility of a campus shooting can unfortunately serve to inspire potential copycats and inadvertently raise the chance of tragedy.

James Alan Fox is a professor of criminal justice and of law, policy, and society at Northeastern University, and co-author of the just-released report "Campus Violence Prevention and Response."