As a community college president for 16 years before being appointed the Under Secretary of Education, I wanted to do everything in my power to prevent violence on campus. Building trust among the campus constituencies with the campus chief of police was essential as a first step.
According to a new report from the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education, we can do a lot more to keep our campuses safe. To do so, top experts say, requires the combined efforts of students, faculty, administrators and campus security, zero-tolerance for threats and harassment, and immediate reporting of concerns to campus or law enforcement officials who are trained in threat assessment.
The evidence is compelling. The report continues that at least a third of violent attackers telegraphed their intentions to others before they struck. “The message is clear: don’t ignore threats,” says the FBI’s Supervisory Special Agent Andre Simons, who recently briefed our education team at the Department of Education. “If you hear someone say ’they are going to regret this’ or something like that, you need someone skilled to dig a little deeper and find out what that person really means. Don’t assume it is just talk.”
The best approach, according to those who conducted the recent study, is to establish a multidisciplinary Campus Threat Assessment Team that includes campus experts on law enforcement, mental health, human resources, and student affairs along with legal experts who can ensure that students’ rights are properly protected. The FBI maintains 56 field offices that offer direct links to the FBI’s Washington-based Threat Assessment experts, who are ready to offer advice and support around the clock.
I saw the importance of being vigilant and identifying potential threats in my own experience. In January 2001, local police notified me that they had charged a young man with planning an attack with the intent of causing several casualties at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, where I served as president. It was one of the most chilling experiences of my professional life. Fortunately, a good samaritan had tipped off authorities, who promptly and effectively intervened. We’ll never know if the carefully planned attack would have been carried out. But the weapons prepared by this troubled young man were all too real and the danger clear and present. I’m forever indebted to the concerned citizen who took it upon herself to report her concerns to law enforcement personnel. She may have saved dozens of lives.
The experience was a lesson for me – and it’s one that’s confirmed in this new report: if and when threats are reported, be ready, and know how to respond. Whether you are a professor, an administrator or a college president, get yourself educated before – not after. And make sure your Campus Safety Team meets and updates you on a regular basis.
Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education
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The Interactive CD “A Safe School and Threat Assessment Experience: Scenarios Exploring the Findings of the Safe School Initiative” can be ordered for free online here.