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Steven R. DiSalvo, Ph.D. Headshot

A Multi-Faceted Approach on How to Reduce Violence on School and College Campuses

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A real effort is being made on most college campuses these days to stop violence before it happens. In some cases, that means making schools gun-free zones. In others, like ours, it's that and more.

At the college I head, Marian University in Wisconsin, we have a crisis management plan to keep students, faculty and staff members safe in case of emergency -- and a program through which we try to spot troubled students to get help for them before they become a threat to themselves and others.

As stated by our Coordinator of Campus Safety and Security, Matt Rose, a veteran U.S. Marine Sergeant who served two tours in Iraq, "we prepare for everything -- even the Zombie Apocalypse."

He's joking, but not really. According to homeland security experts, it's best to prepare for any type of campus event -- death, an outbreak, weather, a shooting. Rose says it's best not to plan for anything specific, but to take what's known as an all-hazards approach.

"Whatever the hazard, we start with the same reaction," he said.

They also work very hard to thwart problems, to avoid a major incident.

Dee Harmsen, Marian's Director of Student Services, holds a degree in criminal justice, a Master's in organizational leadership and is certified in homeland security.

"We're training everyone on campus to identify students of concern and report them to authorities so they can get help before a crisis occurs. We teach a system known as QPR, Question, Persuade, Refer.

"In addition, our Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT) meets bi-weekly. Team members alert each other to potentially threatening students, based on what they see and hear from others."

Says Rose, "Hindsight is 20/20. Someone will generally say, 'Oh yeah, I saw something there, but I didn't know what to do.' One department saw something that they didn't share with another. Or, they'll dismiss a suspicion owing it to growing pains among students."

Marian tries to involve everyone on campus in pre-crisis management.

"We have a safety and security form for reporting someone who may be in trouble," said Harmsen. "Students can submit it anonymously by visiting the Campus Safety and Security Web page."

Rose reports success with a number of students. "I see them now and they say, 'hey, Matt' with a smile. You need to have that personal connection, so they know someone cares," said Rose.

"We have a great counseling program here. We are trying to be proactive," said Harmsen.

As Harmsen and Rose work on security issues, another Marian professor is working to prevent suicide to reduce other types of violence, including risk-taking behavior, domestic violence and assault.

Janet McCord, Ph.D. FT, chair of Marian's Thanatology program (suicide prevention, death and dying, bereavement), believes in treating depression and other psychological issues so suicide is approached not as a symptom, but as a coping mechanism to be substituted by other, better ways of dealing with problems.

Dr. McCord, a Psychological Autopsy Investigator for the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Suicide Prevention Psychological Autopsy Project, points out that 50 percent of clinicians don't know how to help a suicidal person.

Dr. McCord is on a team of researchers conducting psychological autopsies on all USMC suicides since 2010. She will interview the relatives and friends of each victim to outline a psychological history that will be studied with forensic/clinical evidence.

"We need to train those who run crisis lines, suicide prevention centers, coalitions on the community level and anyone who comes into regular contact with those at risk to reach more people who are suffering and in pain.

"We also need to reduce the stigma around suicide. If you know someone who is having problems, you shouldn't be afraid to ask about it and direct them to a mental health professional,"she said. In turn, assessment, education and current treatment methods can be improved.

"It is estimated that 41 percent of those who die by suicide were being treated by a practitioner of some sort at the time of their death," said Dr. McCord, who endorses the work of David A. Jobes, Ph.D., of Catholic University of America. His CAMS program, Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality, has been adopted by the Mayo Clinic as a protocol known to reduce trips to emergency rooms.

"CAMS establishes a strong clinician/client alliance with issues collaboratively. A client and clinician sit side by side to fill out a detailed assessment of one's risk factors for suicide. After determining the level of risk, they outline a plan together. In the meantime, the clinician helps the client identify tools to reduce stress and thwart crisis. We find, ultimately, that most people in crisis have poor methods of coping with their pain."

"If we enhance one's reason for living and help them learn and adopt coping mechanisms that do not involve ending life, we can provide long-term assistance" said Dr. McCord. "Essentially, it comes down to: Where do you hurt? How can I help you?"

Those who run colleges and universities should be on the look-out for all kinds of issues as they arise and they should be ready to intervene when a student needs help. That's the only way to really get to the heart of the matter of controlling violence -- and to serve our mission -- to both educate and turn our students into responsible adults ready to become leaders in society.