All of higher education, and much of the world beyond, was stunned by the shooting rampage that took place at Virginia Tech in April of 2007. That campus is tight knit, and the deaths sent shock waves through the Virginia Tech community. Just three months later, many of the families of those who died in the tragedy came together to form the Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Foundation to advocate for campus safety and to support victims of violence on campus.
In learning from this tragedy, much has changed across higher education in how we identify and assess students with severe mental health problems who might also prove a threat to themselves or others. Behavioral Threat Assessment Teams and violence prevention programs have become standard practice on campuses. NASPA’s Enough is Enough initiative is a direct outgrowth of that tragedy, formed in 2008 through inspiring words at the national conference from Virginia Tech’s Vice President for Student Affairs, Dr. Zenobia Lawrence Hikes, now deceased.
As the 2015-16 school year begins, the VTV Family Outreach Foundation has announced a new initiative designed to further the cause of campus safety. The 32 National Campus Safety Initiative (32NCSI), named in recognition of the 32 individuals who died in the massacre, is designed to help campuses assess their own protocols and preparedness across nine dimensions--areas that will ring true with any student affairs professional with broad responsibilities: 1) Alcohol and other drugs, 2) Campus public safety, 3) Emergency management, 4) Hazing, 5) Mental Health, 6) Missing students, 7) Physical security, 8) Sexual violence, and 9) Threat assessment.
The self-assessment is designed to be self-paced, and, according to the 32NCSI website, can be “completed in a day or a semester.” It is described as a “solution-based, not compliance-based tool.” One way to get a sense of the range of issues covered without actually signing up for the self-assessment is to review the questions posted for consumers across these nine areas. Here is a sampling of these questions:
The program was launched at George Mason University on August 13. As of August 25, 98 campuses had already signed up to begin the self-assessment, according to S. Daniel Carter, Director of 32 National Campus Safety Initiative for the VTV Family Outreach Foundation. Many will remember Carter from his work directing the Clery Center for Security on Campus. When asked why he joined the VTV Foundation to direct this program, he said that he began working with the families soon after the tragedy as a victim’s advocate. He is dedicated to the Foundation’s larger mission, to improve campus safety, and believed that his network of contacts developed through the Clery Center could benefit the 32NCSI. In fact, one of his first tasks was to identify a panel of experts, whose advice ultimately shaped the direction of the project.
According to Carter, the development of the self-assessment system was shaped by the families of the VTV Foundation. “One of the family members was an engineer,” said Carter. He said, “Give us something measurable to help us evaluate campus safety.” Neither Carter nor the families wanted a ranking system. They do not believe it is appropriate for an outside body to say that one campus is safer or less safe than another.
One member of the panel of experts, Jen Day Shaw, Dean of Students at the University of Florida, made sure that her campus was an early adopter of the program. Shaw served as Chair of the NASPA Campus Safety Knowledge Community. Shaw said that she was excited to be a part of the initiative. Peter Lake, whom many will know as a strategic thinker about law and higher education through his work at Stetson University College of Law, was appointed chair. Shaw had spoken at Stetson’s National Conference on Law and Higher Education, and Lake approached her to join in. Shaw said that when the President of the Board of the VTV Foundation, Joe Samaha, talked about families’ vision for the project, there was strong alignment with campus partners. There had been debate about moving towards a compliance approach, which campus representatives opposed. Shaw said, “They really listened to us. We helped convince them that we needed to work in a partnership model.”
There was joint identification of the 9 areas, with campus expertise helping to shape the final list. Groups were formed around each of the nine areas to flesh out the dimensions of assessment. The idea, said Shaw, is to create platinum benchmarks that campuses can use to assess themselves. Shaw said, “We’re all in this together. We all want safe campuses. One audience is families, but we want everyone to be able to use it.”
The self-assessment will allow campuses to identify gaps in their own safety infrastructure, and figure out a plan to close those gaps. The planners took every instrument and worked through it. They paid attention to how questions were phrased and re-worked the language to apply to different constituencies. Shaw recruited pilot participants using her NASPA network to test out the instrument.
At the University of Florida, a large and complex university, Shaw said they administered it using a series of small groups to cover each of the nine areas. They looked for gaps, identifying broken links, an old policy on someone’s website, and inconsistent language. She noted that it has already helped them document training and improve communication. She added that staff members who are parents of current students provided a great perspective. Shaw believes that the 32NCSI will benefit the whole university, especially student affairs divisions. As is often the case, Shaw found that the process was more important than the outcome.
NASPA members should note that at this time, the process is entirely voluntary. Virginia legislators, who have been very attentive since the Virginia Tech tragedy, had staffers attend the 32NCSI launch event at George Mason University. NASPA’s Director for Policy Research and Advocacy, Dr. Andrew Morse, will help us keep an eye on efforts to turn this process into a legal mandate at the state or federal level.