Magazine article Security Management

Coping with Crises on Campus

Magazine article Security Management

Coping with Crises on Campus

Article excerpt

ON SEPTEMBER 17, 1992, only two weeks into the new semester, the Department of Public Safety at Southern Methodist University responded to an emergency call. Two students had fallen down an elevator shaft. One was dead, the other seriously injured. Security was shocked to learn that the students had intentionally entered the shaft as part of a new fad known as elevator surfing. No one at Southern Methodist had heard of the game prior to that night.

In many ways the actions of students at any university are unpredictable. Trends and fads are brought to campuses from all across the country, as well as from outside the United States. It is difficult for police and security departments to predict or gather intelligence about new activities. Campus personnel must develop a plan to combat unusual forms of thrill seeking.

A number of factors contribute to the vulnerability of college students. The average freshman is usually away from home and parental supervision for the first time. Many times these students are ready to cut loose.

Students who come from a safe, controlled environment have difficulty relating to the concepts of crime, caution, and victimization. They tend to view everyone they meet, especially in a campus housing atmosphere, as honest and trustworthy. Because they have a problem imagining their own mortality, their actions are often those of a person who is invincible. Death, injury, and disease always occur to someone else. These attitudes, combined with peer pressure and the feeling of wanting to belong, creates an atmosphere where foolhardy actions are undertaken without a lot of thought. Such incidents are more common than their bizarre nature would suggest.

On March 11, 1990, a student of the University of Massachusetts was trying to go from a shaft beam to the top of an elevator when he lost his footing and fell eight stories. At Indiana State University in Terre Haute on March 20, 1991, three students were riding on top of an elevator in one of the residence halls. When it stalled, one of the students tried to climb down to a second elevator. At the same time, another student attempted a rescue by using the second elevator, killing the first student.

Attention turned to the movies as a motive, indicating that the students were mimicking Bruce Willis and his outrageous elevator shaft feats in the film Die Hard. In fact, this behavior dates back to the early 1980s in the low-income apartments of Chicago and New York. Texas Tech University in Lubbock had an incident in the 1970s when a high school student fell to his death while attempting to ride atop an elevator.

In at least two of the college incidents, students were attempting these feats under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. In the situation at Southern Methodist, however, the autopsy revealed that neither alcohol nor other controlled substances were involved.

Risks can be posed by other little-thought-of campus features. For example, most of the larger universities across the United States have an elaborate tunneling system that connects campus buildings and allows for heating, cooling, and electrical systems maintenance. Students sometimes discover and use these labyrinthine nether regions.

One such example was the disappearance of a student of Michigan State University in East Lansing.(1) On August 15, 1979, the freshman disappeared from the campus without a trace. He had been observed in the cafeteria in Case Hall where his room was located. The student had an I.Q. of between 170 and 190. He had graduated from high school at the age of 13 and started college when he was 14.

The local authorities' attempts to locate the honor student proved fruitless. The family hired a private investigator from Dallas, William C. Dear. After several weeks of investigation at the campus, Dear was able to piece together a strange story. The youth was a fanatical player of Dungeon & Dragons, a complicated participatory fantasy game where players act out deeds to achieve status in the game's ruler hierarchy. …

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