Can We Secure the Hallowed Halls of Academe?

46 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2007 Last revised: 5 Jan 2022

See all articles by Denis Binder

Denis Binder

Chapman University, The Dale E. Fowler School of Law

Date Written: December 1, 2015


Once upon a time life in the academy was casual. All I had to produce upon appointment 35 years ago to my first faculty position were transcripts from the universities I claimed to have attended. I shut the office door to protect student's privacy when they entered to discuss their exams and grades. My ID simply served as a means to check books out of the library. Indeed, my social security number became my student ID number at both the University of San Francisco and the University of Michigan, and later my driver license in Massachusetts. University policies on alcohol and drugs were much more relaxed than now. For example, we carried a keg of beer into Memorial Stadium at the University of California Berkeley in 1966 for the NCAA Soccer Finals.

Those were the days.

Education is a different environ today. As Columbine, Virginia Tech and other tragedies highlight, we have to worry about campus security. Even before Virginia Tech, liability, criminal activity, sexual harassment, and suicides were increasing concerns on campus.

Let us start with a different paradigm today: seemingly random acts of violence, the "going postal" syndrome, can occur anywhere in society, including fast food restaurants, government offices, and even law firms.

Let us also acknowledge that the university community has limited preventative and response options for increasing campus security. Large campuses of 30,000-50,000 students with thousands of doors and windows cannot be run as a high security prison. These campuses cannot be "shut down", although individual units might be.

The underlying reality is that the normal methods of securing a building are ineffective in academic settings. I submit that it is perhaps even more difficult to secure a college campus against a lone gunman than against a suicide bomber. The gunman can shoot his way through a checkpoint and continue his killing ways, but the bomber, no matter how tragic his act, can only detonate the bomb once.

Securing a campus is different than an enclosed office or factory complex. By their very nature, universities are open centers of learning. The exchange of knowledge is not limited to enrolled students, but offered to the community through guest lectures, visiting scholars, symposia, artistic performances, internet access, sporting events, museums, library services, and graduate and job fairs, often for free.

The normal means of providing a high level of security will usually be ineffective against the mass murderer; badging, armed guards, electronic key locks, emergency call boxes, escorts, lighted parking lots, metal detectors, and video surveillance, may reduce normal criminal activity, but they cannot secure the campus.

While we picture college campuses as physically contained environs with more or less distinct boundaries, many large urban universities, such as NYU, Boston University, and George Washington, are integrated into scores of blocks of the community. A fleeing suspect could easily blend into the surrounding neighborhood before any responders could reach the scene.

Guns are often the weapon of choice, but the means of killing parallel those of society in general.

Safety escorts and lighted parking structures may reduce criminal activity, such as muggings and sexual assault, which is all to the good, but they are ineffective against the crazed killer. Similarly, video surveillance may tell us what is happening in real time, and provide evidence afterwards, but they don't prevent crime.

Investigative reporters, and lawyers will always discover, with the benefit of hindsight, warning signs that were ignored, as with both David Attias and Cho Seung-Hui of Virginia Tech. These signs are often of psychological disturbances in the killer. What is obvious though in hindsight is often not so clear until the tragedy unfolds. However, these signs are often more characteristic and reflective of those who do not in fact pose a threat to others. Considering the hormonal rages of teenagers, academic disappointments, and broken relationships, indications of abnormal behavior are common.

Psychoanalysis is often an art rather than a science; thus psychological screening is notoriously imprecise. While psychotherapists may be liable, especially in California, for failing to warn a patient's victim that the patient posed a threat to the victim, such diagnoses are very imprecise. Indeed, Cho Seung-Hui the Virginia Tech shooter, was once committed by a judge for observation, but the box checked on the commitment form was "poses a threat to himself." The "poses a threat to others" box was left unchecked.

Treatment for depression and other psychological disorders is not a key to violent behavior. Absent demonstrated signs of socially unacceptable/criminal behavior, an university cannot exclude students who are "weird." Counseling offices at universities often have a high patient load with antidepressants among the most commonly prescribed drugs on colleges and universities. One study by the American College Health Association reported that by 2006 'the rate of college students ever diagnosed with depression' was 15%.

Drug and alcohol induced rages may not always be individually foreseeable.

However, the academic world is not without some tools to provide safety.

Even before Virginia Tech, universities were taking steps to detect undesirable activity and exclude potentially unwanted persons from the campus.

Building upon the transparency mandates of Sarbanes-Oxley, many universities, often at the initiative of trustees who have become used to SarBox in their professional careers, have adopted a commercially marketed "hotline" procedure. Under the hotline, complainants, even anonymously, may phone or email complaints of undesirable activity. Depending upon what each individual campus includes on the reportable list, complaints could be of academic misconduct, conflicts of interest, criminal activity, financial misconduct, or sexual harassment.

Commonly utilized computer screening techniques can be used to exclude students, faculty, and staff who may pose a high risk. But they do so at the risk of violating the civil rights of innocent persons.

The internet has changed everything in the knowledge front. A simple Google search today can discover much about an applicant's past.

Colleges are increasingly requiring increased background information by applicants as a means of screening faculty, staff, administrators, and students. For example, the Common Application, currently used by over 320 colleges and universities, requires the applicant to disclose any conviction of a crime, even a misdemeanor, and any school violation leading to probation, suspension, removal, dismissal, or expulsion.

Other schools have independently adopted similar requirements. Background checks are also increasingly required for "student athletes," as universities are increasingly intolerant of inappropriate behavior by athletes.

The criminal checks can be performed very quickly through computers. Part of the question though is what happens when something is uncovered, such as a misdemeanor marijuana conviction as an undergrad a few decades earlier, or a more recent, but isolated, DWI?

A different approach is to learn the lessons from prior incidents. The tragedies of Columbine and Virginia Tech have led, and will lead, to a reassessment of response efforts. For example, even though the Sheriff's Department at Columbine knew by 12:30 pm of the suicides of the two teenage assailants, they continued their slow, room-by-room security sweep, and continued to block access and egress. They also knew by cell phone calls that a teacher was wounded in a classroom. His wounds were serious, but survivable if promptly treated. They did not reach the teacher until 4:30 pm, by which time the wounds had become fatal. The law suit was subsequently settled for $1,500,000. Response procedures changed after this tragedy.

The initial phase of an incident will often be obscured by the proverbial fog of war. Thus, in Virginia Tech initial reports were that it might have simply been a version of a domestic dispute with the assailant suffering from a broken heart with the initial victim being the girlfriend. No broader threat to the greater campus community was perceived, and campus wide warnings delayed for two hours. If it was a domestic dispute, then broad warnings would have been viewed as an overreaction.

Yet, one procedure is available to all campuses today: multiple means exist to notify the campus community. These include emails, text messaging, website postings, pod casting, public address announcements, radio announcements, mass media, personal contacts, voice mail, and dedicated cell phone calling and messaging.

May I also suggest though that universities reassess their basic approach to emergencies. I found in an informal internet search a few months prior to Virginia Tech that the homepages of half the University of California campuses had no link to "emergencies" or the equivalent. Neither does that of my current employer.

The nature of any emergency will always be different, but to have in place a well-designed, tested and up-to-date emergency response plan will minimize the threat.

Keywords: Colleges, Universities, Higher Education, Education, Campus Safety, Campus Shootings, and Terrorism.

Suggested Citation

Binder, Denis, Can We Secure the Hallowed Halls of Academe? (December 1, 2015). Regent University Law Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2015-2016, Available at SSRN: or

Denis Binder (Contact Author)

Chapman University, The Dale E. Fowler School of Law ( email )

One University Drive
Orange, CA 92866-1099
United States

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