Campuses Must Be Thick-Skinned to Remain Unscathed

One crucial aspect of campus safety is the ability of the organization to look critically at itself to spot vulnerabilities so they can be corrected before tragedy strikes. Organizations that lack the ability to identify their risks have sometimes suffered devastating consequences.

Pan Am, which was formerly the world’s largest airline, is a prime example. One security incident, the bombing of a Pan Am jet as it passed over Scotland, not only killed all of the passengers and crew on the ill-fated flight, but resulted in the death of the airline as well. A top expert in weapons screening and physical security could have spotted the gaps that were present in the company’s security system, but Pan Am did not make the investment. Instead, a group of moderately skilled but ruthless terrorists were able to exploit Pan Am’s vulnerabilities to tragic success.

Most major crisis events do not have such a catastrophic impact on the organizations that experience them, but the outcomes can be quite detrimental nonetheless.

  Sometimes the Truth Isn’t Easy to Hear

With this in mind, any organization that wishes to achieve its full potential, be it a hospital, major university or a private K-12 school, should address all major safety issues to ensure the proper and uninterrupted function of the campus. A fight in a high school classroom, the assault of a nurse in the hospital parking deck or a series of bomb threats at a college all interfere with the accomplishment of the respective organizations’ missions. Unfortunately, we often see instances where key campus officials are unable or unwilling to seek out and attack the vulnerabilities of their organization prior to a major incident. In many cases, just a little more effort could dramatically enhance the efforts to make a campus safer.

  I recently encountered this type of mindset at a campus safety training session I attended. Participants toured the campus hosting the training and applied the hazard and vulnerability assessment techniques they had learned.

The attendees and instructors noted a number of significant safety and security gaps, and pointed them out to the administrative team at the site. Later, I learned that the administrators were upset the students and instructors had made more negative comments about the campus than positive ones. This was a bit of a surprise because the process being taught was designed to help attendees find things that could cause death and injury. I had never personally experienced this type of reaction from training sessions before, but I have seen similar reactions to safety concerns.

This kind of mindset is one reason we have so many campus safety incidents in the first place. Those responsible for safety on America’s campuses must have the ability to look at their own organization’s safety practices, policies and efforts with an extremely critical eye. Only then can hazards and vulnerabilities be spotted and addressed.

Ignoring Criticism Could Be Costly

In my seminars, I often use the example of a patient who is having his annual physical. He is excited about the weight he has lost through an exercise program. Imagine a doctor telling the patient that he is in excellent health, but as soon as the patient leaves, the doctor turns to a nurse and says, “It’s a shame, I think the patient may have cancer and will probably die in a year without treatment. I just didn’t want to ruin his mood since he was so happy about his good efforts.”

This, in effect, is what happens in some campus organizations. A doctor would lose his or her license for using this approach to medicine, yet some campus leaders handle safety this way. One of the biggest challenges facing police, safety and security directors is to counter this all too prevalent mindset through tireless efforts.

I recall one high school a few years ago where the organization had hired a consultant to evaluate safety. The organization chose to ignore his recommendations and marched on as it always had, certain that the dangers had been exaggerated. A few years later, more than a dozen people died as a result of a shooting because the consultant’s recommendations were filed away and forgotten.

When it comes to safety, the thicker the skin an organization has, the less likely it will experience tragedy.

An internationally recognized authority on campus safety and the author of 19 books on the topic, Michael Dorn is the senior public safety and emergency management analyst for Jane’s Consultancy. Dorn, a member of the Campus Safety Advisory Council, works with a team of campus safety experts to make campuses safer around the globe through Jane’s offices in nine countries. He can be reached at

For the unabridged version of this article, please refer to the January/February 2007 issue of Campus Safety Magazine. To subscribe, go to

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