Does it make sense for universities and neighboring elementary and secondary schools to close in response to threatening graffiti?
The campus of St. Xavier University was like a well-guarded ghost town Monday, its classrooms empty, its dormitories shuttered and its every entrance patrolled by school security officers and Chicago police.
That quiet watchfulness spread to neighboring campuses as well, after threatening graffiti was found last week in a university residence hall.
Following St. Xavier's lead, four schools adjacent to the South Side university—Mother McAuley and Brother Rice High Schools, and Queen of Martyrs and Southwest Elementary Schools—closed for the day Monday.
As St. Xavier's students found alternate housing and wondered when classes would resume, the university's decision ignited a debate among campus security experts over whether such a drastic measure was justified over anonymous scrawls in a bathroom stall.
At issue is the balance between keeping students safe in the wake of recent campus shootings in Illinois and Virginia, and overreacting to threats that are often non-specific and untraceable. Acknowledging that the St. Xavier decision is hard to judge without more details of the school's deliberations, some experts said closing a campus risks creating more problems down the road.
Others, however, said that erring on the side of safety should be the new standard.Scott Poland, crisis coordinator for Nova Southeastern University in South Florida, says that closing a school should be the last resort. He advocated instead increased security, meetings to put students on alert and ongoing threat assessments.
"We shouldn't close schools every time there is a threat of violence," he said. "In fact, in most instances—say of a bomb threat or something—you deal with the issue but then return to the operation of the school."
But other school security experts said it was better for school officials to exercise maximum caution. St. Xavier officials said they had no choice after discovering the second of two threats in Regina Hall Thursday, this one reading "Be prepared to die on 4/14."
The St. Xavier threat appears to have been a false positive. To close operations, particularly threats that occur near exam week, is to induce miscreants to use extreme measures to obtain a little extra study time, or perhaps the option of obtaining a grade based on partial information. To reject the threat, however, is to risk a room of dead people. In light of the last year's events, administrators appear to be erring on the side of caution.
In a week that marks the anniversaries of the Virginia Tech and Columbine shootings, others said it would be hard to send students into the area on the day that was so specifically marked.
Later Monday morning, in an apparently unrelated incident, Malcolm X College evacuated its students for several hours after a similar threat was discovered.
In the far north suburbs, Grayslake Middle School was closed about five minutes early Monday, when threatening graffiti was found in a restroom. Police and staff of Community Consolidated School District 46 swept the building and grounds and determined that school could reopen Tuesday.
Also on Monday, Oakland University in Michigan canceled classes and campus activities for two days after threatening scrawls were found. Coastal Carolina University officials in Conway, S.C., suspended classes until Tuesday morning because of a fatal shooting near campus.
The people who make the decisions are aware of the possible perverse incentives.
Officials at St. Xavier said that they only shut down campus after conversations with several parties, including the Chicago police, the FBI and administrators at Northern Illinois University.
School spokesman Joe Moore said that the school has had an emergency continuity plan in place for years, and that it was revised as recently as last year's shooting at Virginia Tech. "There's no question that the national conversation has changed since a year ago," Moore said. "We're taking steps that we might not have considered [before Virginia Tech]."
University officials were tight-lipped about the details of that emergency plan, and what other warning signs may have led them to close. But Brett A. Sokolow, president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, believes that for the school to shut down, "they must have had pretty credible reason to do so.
"It is rare to shut down for several days, he said, and it carries a cost."The shutdown results in accomplishing what the person making the threat intends: to disrupt the school," he said. "There are many implications to that. Now once you have a threat do you shut down every time?"
There is no easy answer to that last question. To treat each threat as a potential Northern Illinois gives too much power to the miscreants. To erroneously disregard a true threat ...

Given the threat assessment, does it make sense for campus police to cross-train as emergency medical technicians?
The medical training provided to Northern Illinois University police officers likely saved lives, but police arriving from other departments did not always take direction, creating what could have been a dangerous situation after a gunman opened fire on campus two months ago, killing five, two NIU officers told a national conference Monday.
Lt. Darren Mitchell told how officers who entered a lecture hall moments after the shooting ended found the gunman, a former graduate student, dead on stage and some students, uninjured, still frozen in their seats. Mitchell and Lt. Todd Henert gave the closing address at a campus security conference hosted by the University of Central Oklahoma, which also Webcast their remarks.
"A lot of people thought our chief was out of his mind," Mitchell said of NIU Police Chief Donald Grady's proposal to train all officers as emergency medical technicians, which was adopted about five years ago. "We've since had numerous occasions where our officers . . . have engaged in lifesaving treatment in order to help people. [Feb. 14] turned out to be the pinnacle . . . of how helpful it was."
We're likely to see some updating of prior beliefs elsewhere. There are other options available to university officials, some of which might keep some people who will be dangerous to others or themselves off campus.
FBI Assistant Executive Director J. Steven Tidwell said campuses need to transform themselves to better identify students who could become violent. "One of the things we are now all doing is building picket fences," he said. Universities should "have enough picket fences that sooner or later you'll see them step over one."
That's easy to say, but somewhat more difficult to implement, as an Inside Higher Ed post on the creative writing of parasuicidals notes.
In a study of undergraduate and graduate students at two Northeastern universities published in Pediatrics in 2006, researchers from Cornell and Princeton Universities found that 17 percent of students surveyed had engaged in self-injurious behavior — defined as purposeful self-infliction of bodily harm, without social sanction and without suicidal intentions.
Relatively few of those individuals become dangerous to others. Does self-injury become a "picket fence"? What about buying a Cubs logo tattoo?

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