Exploring college leaders' critical incident experiences pursuant to improving campus safety policies during the mass-shooting era



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Since the early 1700’s, colleges have used authority figures such as spiritual leaders, tutors, faculty members, and campus police to implement systems of institutional control and accountability for student behavior on their campuses. Despite these efforts, during the last ten generations, colleges have struggled to find the appropriate balance between college campus control and educational freedom (Geiger, 2006). Cohen and Kisker (2010) assert that the college life system was designed for controlling the often exuberant youth and for inculcating within them, discipline, morals, and character. Ideally, the colleges simply wanted the students to aspire to higher education, but immaturity levels often contributed to students’ delinquent behaviors (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). This recurring tendency in student behavior precipitated the need for more robust measures of control on college campuses. As such, by the 1800’s, many colleges embraced the unsophisticated campus policing model known as the watchman system. The watchman system enhanced authority presence on campuses, but restricted actual campus police enforcement (Sloan, 1992).
Today, remnants of the watchman system still exists in modern campus policing, as indicated by campus police officers being restricted to custodial duties such as protecting the college from fire, water, and other damage, and maintaining social control with limited enforcement capabilities (Sloan, 1992; Wilson & Wilson, 2011). This restrictive approach to campus policing has fundamentally shaped the policing model on college campuses today – reflecting a culture of perceived complacency and amateurism (Wilson & Wilson, 2011).
In recent years, colleges have faced numerous unconventional threats to campus safety including: radical protests, sexual assaults and mass shooting attacks; most of which the colleges and their campus police agencies have been underprepared to handle (U.S. Department of Justice, 2005; Karjane, Fisher, & Cullen, 2005). This lack of preparedness has historically been associated with college administrators’ influence over campus security policy. In Gelber (1972), college presidents were identified as the primary policymaking authority on college campuses; while campus security offices assumed a secondary role in the decision-making process. Today, despite the unprecedented increases in violent campus crime, college presidents continue to maintain the status quo of reinforcing the historical practice of restricting campus police authority through policy and practice.
Sloan (1992) found that since the Mid-to-late 1960s, colleges and campus police agencies across the country have remained relatively autonomous. However, in order for administrators to maintain authoritative control over campus police operations, some colleges made their chief of police accountable to the vice president of student affairs or directly to the president of the college (Sloan, 1992; Gelber, 1972). Many law enforcement practitioners have widely criticized the practice of hedging campus police authority because it acrimoniously impacts critical incident preparedness and response on college campuses.
From a practical standpoint, there is insufficient evidence indicating that college leaders (college president and college police chiefs) are risk-conscious of impediments to critical incident management and emergent threats to campus safety based on their past experiences. However, as suggested by Whitfield (2004), college and university leaders can no longer avoid looking outside of their internal walls for impending threats and preparing for the problems that can result from them. Based on this premise, several emergent unconventional threats to college safety were presented in this study and practical recommendations were made for college leaders and politicians to consider in preparing for and mitigating the outcomes of critical incidents during the Mass-shooting Era.



Mass-shooting Era, Radicalization, Campus police chiefs, College presidents, Critical incidents, Shooting attacks