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    Managing the risk of violence on campuses amid Covid-19

    Chris Parker, Lucy Straker and Joseph Gilliland

    Colleges have welcomed back students this fall under circumstances that no institution or student will have experienced before. This year, more than ever, the thousand [1] or so academic institutions re-opening their doors have had to consider whether new approaches are required to protect the safety and security of campuses and students’ physical and mental wellbeing.

    The pandemic has placed an enormous strain on many, and added a layer of uncertainty and friction for college students and staff. It has also polarized opinion across America, which will be reflected on campuses. Some students may feel they are being forced to choose between their education and their health, while others may be skeptical or dismissive about measures such as mask wearing.

    However, COVID-19 is only one potential flashpoint. Colleges are also grappling with an upsurge in political protesting and the rising threat of extremism. A 2017 survey shows that students are more politically divided than ever with few identifying as non-partisan or “middle of the road”. Against this backdrop, a bitterly contested election is only likely to deepen divides and increase polarization.   

    In such a high-stress environment, colleges must plan how to deescalate tensions and reduce the risk of violence flaring up on campuses while factoring the health and wellbeing of students.

    The costs of getting things wrong can be high. Following a fatal vehicle ramming attack against counter-protesters at a far-right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, the University of Virginia was criticized in an official report regarding the violence. Even though the attack occurred off campus, the report claimed the university had been aware of organizers’ intention to march through the university hours before it began but took no action. The report stated that the confrontation between protestors and a group of counter protestors on campus “set an ominous tone” citing the relative passivity of the university and failure to anticipate violence as a contributing factor of what later unfolded. [3]

    Unfortunately, violence and mass shootings are all-too common in the US and colleges need a strategy in place to mitigate the risk and outline how to respond should an incident occur. This isn’t to say that violence should be expected, however, experience shows us that those who are best prepared are the most likely to manage effectively in a crisis.  There are some steps that risk managers can take to address the issues:

    • Training: Ensure that key staff are trained in conflict de-escalation. They should know what the warning signs are and how to engage in an empathetic way with students displaying concerning behaviors.
    • Proactively communicate: Fostering a strong culture on campus and ensuring that all students and staff are aware of the values and standards expected of them is important. Colleges need to create an affinity with students and communicate with them in a way that recognizes any difficulties they may face.
    • Report and act upon potential indicators: Students and staff need to feel comfortable reporting any concerning behaviors they witness. Violence by individuals or groups is rarely random. Early intelligence from the college community or other sources provides time for college leadership to engage with students and staff to remove the threat and minimize risk. College leadership should escalate concerns to law enforcement and seek advice from external experts who can advise on how best to coordinate with students, the local community, staff and law enforcement to ensure a robust response plan is in place.
    • Have an emergency response plan in place: Should a situation threaten to escalate into violence, colleges need a robust emergency plan and to ensure their response if appropriate and early.

    There are numerous examples of anxieties over COVID-19 restrictions boiling over into violence resulting in serious injury and death, as appears to have been the case in incidents in Flint (MI) [4], Oklahoma City (OK) [5], Gardena (CA) [6], Lansing (MI) [7] and Bethlehem (PA) [8]. However, identifying and addressing potential sources of tensions and training staff in how to deescalate situations before they boil over will be critical for colleges in reducing the risks of such incidents occurring.

    Acting upon an early warning or potential circumstance that could give rise to violence can prove vital. Incorporating external crisis management advice into risk management planning can also reduce risks and may help when an organization most needs it. Having experts who can coordinate with law enforcement, liaise with community leaders and students and develop a communication plan can leave colleges better prepared, empower college leaders and provide valuable reassurance.

    Understanding the risk landscape and threat of violence involving both lone actors and organized groups is essential for any college risk manager. Having access to risk and crisis management advice is important for educational institutions of all sizes especially in times of heightened uncertainty. Specialist insurance can assist by providing risk and crisis management services to policyholders, helping them to embed practices that lower the risk and offer post-event support as well as risk transfer. Those looking to manage their exposure should speak to their insurance broker about what coverage is available.

    [1] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02419-w

    [2] https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/05/the-most-polarized-freshman-class-in-half-a-century/525135/

    [3] https://www.huntonak.com/images/content/3/4/v4/34613/final-report-ada-compliant-ready.pdf

    [4] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/04/us/michigan-security-guard-mask-killing-trnd/index.html

    [5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/05/07/mcdonalds-oklahoma-city-shooting-coronavirus/

    [6] https://abc7.com/gardena-fight-mask-facial-covering/6309131/

    [7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-53411850

    [8] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/08/04/us/man-gun-pennsylvania-cigar-shop-masks/index.html

    About the author:

    Chris joined Beazley in April 2011. His role within Beazley is head of the Terrorism, Political Violence and the Kidnap & Ransom underwriting team. Chris started his career at Willis in the Marine Reinsurance market in 1990 and joined the Political Risk market in 1995 whilst still at Willis. In 2004 he moved to Marsh and assumed responsibility for the Bowring Marsh Terrorism and Political Violence business in 2006.

    Chris Parker
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