“The University Community Is Urged to Be Cautious”: The Law of Guns on Campus

In the aftermath of the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, and a dozen other less publicized tragedies, advocates for and against guns on campus have argued how exactly a “cautious” university community should behave

Steven A. Adelman

Behind the ivy-covered walls of America’s colleges and universities, there has long been a refrain about campus violence: It can’t happen here.

Even before 33 people died at Virginia Tech, however, there was little reason for complacency. Just two weeks before that April 16, 2007, disaster, two people were gunned down at the University of Washington. In 2003, a man fired hundreds of rounds during a deadly seven-hour standoff at Case Western Reserve University. In 2002, seven people were shot to death in separate incidents at the University of Arizona and Appalachian School of Law.

In the national outcry for safety measures following Virginia Tech and the February 14, 2008, shootings at Northern Illinois University, colleges and universities have struggled with conflicting demands by students, parents, administrators, lawyers, and legislators. From a legal standpoint, one certainty is that the old standard of care, benign neglect, no longer applies. Put another way, while no one solution will prevent violence or its close cousin, litigation, many things can be done, and are being done, to prevent the next campus catastrophe.

Generally, the steps taken in the first year after Virginia Tech fit into one of two categories: (1) improving notification of an incident on campus; and (2) upgrading processes for assessing student behavior. With the lawyerly caveat that the following is not an endorsement for any particular product or procedure, here is what some schools are doing to reduce the likelihood of violence on their campuses:

Improving Community During an Emergency

A direct legacy of Virginia Tech, where two hours and 11 minutes passed from the first gunshots until the university’s email to students, is that much attention and money has gone to improving notice of an incident while it is in progress.

  • New notification technology. The most headline-grabbing moves have been the mass notification communication systems such as the Omnilert e2Campus alert system, the MIR3 inCampuAlert system, or AtHoc’s IWSAlerts mass warning system. However, even the best technology can be foiled by human limitations. Before cutting library acquisitions in order to fund campus-wide voicemail, mass text messages, or email blasts, a school needs contact information for enough students to make the expenditure worthwhile. Schools that require students to affirmatively provide their contact information for a mass communication network have far lower rates of compliance than those that use previously provided information unless students choose to opt out.

  • Traditional security technology. The new technology is “sexy,” but many campuses have also upgraded their low-tech security by applying the principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Even on a tight budget, safety can be improved by adding lighting, sirens, security cameras, or two-way radios to allow safety officials to broadcast over loudspeakers from remote locations. Significantly, these forms of technology not only increase campus safety during an emergency, they add to the feeling of safety at all times.

  • Streamlining safety bureaucracy. Many schools have consolidated communications between safety-related offices, often coordinating efforts through new positions such as Emergency Manager or Vice President for Safety. The value of being able to quickly get accurate information to the decision-maker is obvious. Whether information technology is brand new or old school, there still must be someone to compose the messages and authorize them to be sent.

Upgrading Processes for Assessing Student Behavior

Unlike buying technology or designating a safety czar, colleges and universities have had much more trouble finding legal and ethical ways to identify potentially violent students before they act.

Some student rights advocates argue that it violates the First Amendment for a school to review a student’s Facebook or MySpace pages. Constitutional due process has been cited as a reason not to expel students for stories they submit in creative writing classes, since faculty rarely have training to identify mental illness. Universities have good reason to fear lawsuits where their efforts to deal with mental health threats are characterized as political persecution or profiling.

Similarly, for every well-meaning administrator who would establish a behavioral review team to scrutinize student mental health records, there seems to be an objection based on federal privacy law, such as the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Mental Health Developmental Disabilities Confidentiality Act (MHDDCA), or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Tough Choices

Like all new or newly discovered problems, campus violence presents difficult choices. Every university would gladly spend more for safety technology, if that money could be spent without sacrificing the school’s academic mission. And some mental health inquiries must be permissible, even at the price of formerly sacred civil liberties. If a university is going to get sued for its actions, far better to defend against a student’s indignant lawsuit for infringing his civil rights than against his parents’ tearful lawsuit for their child’s tragic death.