Four Fearsome Risks-And How to Manage Them: Mitigating Risks Involving Campus Violence, Bullying and Harassment, the Higher Education Bubble, and Natural Disasters

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Some of the scariest risks on campus remain hidden until the moment that students, teachers, and staff experience them. Until the shooter kills, the funding disappears, or the opposing party files the lawsuit, everything seems fine. Then, the overwhelming grief takes hold or the power to educate diminishes due to lack of resources. That's why, as campus leaders know, action must be taken before the risk occurs.

Four of the highest-profile risks affecting campuses today involve mental health and violence on campus; bullying and harassment; the higher education bubble; and natural disasters. But these risks can be mitigated. Here's what officials need to know.

Mental Health and Violence on Campus

Though the mentally ill are seldom violent, the risks of mental illness and campus violence are inextricably connected. "When looking through the histories of those who have committed acts of violence on campus, you won't find an individual without mental or emotional illness," says Suzanne Rhulen Loughlin, executive vice president of Firestorm Solutions, a crisis management firm. The risk of extreme violence such as campus shootings and/or other murders or suicides has increased over the last decade due in part to events such as the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, says Nowell Seaman, manager of risk management and insurance services for the University of Saskatchewan (Canada).

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In the face of increasing risk over the four years since Virginia Tech, colleges, universities, and third-party experts have focused on identifying the early warning signs of mental issues and impending attacks, says J. Michael Bale, president of URMIA, the University Risk Management and Insurance Association. But the early signs of mental illness can be deceiving. "Sometimes unusual behavior means a student is tired or very stressed. At other times, it can signal a mental health problem," says Ruth Harper, a professor of counseling and human resource development at South Dakota State University.

A few of the many potential symptoms of mental disturbance include changes in appearance, declining hygiene, and poor academic behavior. "Other signs include incongruous affect (e.g., smiling while crying, laughing at inappropriate moments, etc.), or lack of boundaries (e.g., too much self-disclosure, too-frequent office visits with faculty or staff)," Harper explains.

At first sight of any of these symptoms, parents, peers, faculty, and staff should intervene by reporting their concerns to the college's crisis intervention resources, says Loughlin, adding that campuses tend to have either a single contact or a group of people with the function. Members of the campus community should be reminded of what 800 number to call and where to send a text message to relay any concerns quickly and anonymously. The college's crisis group can then intervene and refer the individual to a capable counselor when necessary. This will help the individual cope, and help prevent any one member of the campus population at large from growing so disturbed as to commit heinous acts.

Higher ed leaders must also recognize and act on the warning signs of impending aggression. The Center for Aggression Management, a firm offering training in aggression recognition and management skills, defines two types of aggression: primal and cognitive. Each carries its own warning signs in the form of body language and behavior. The signs of primal aggression are clear as the attacker demonstrates an obvious outward loss of control. Security and law enforcement are trained to handle the primal aggressor.

It is the cognitive aggressor, however, who typically becomes the mass murderer or the perpetrator of a murder/suicide, according to John Byrnes, founder of the Center for Aggression Management. This is the kind of perpetrator responsible for the killings that happen in minutes or seconds, sending the institution and the nation into panic. …