Community Colleges Face Big Security Risks With Few Resources

Michael Sullivan, The News-Review, AP Images

Ten people died and seven others were wounded on Thursday by a gunman at Umpqua Community College, in Oregon.
October 02, 2015

The violence at Umpqua Community College last week was the worst mass shooting at a two-year college, whose campuses typically have less security and mental-health resources than those of four-year institutions.

A former president of the college, Joseph Olson, said that it has only one security guard, who is unarmed, and that it relies otherwise on the local police force. That’s not uncommon at small, rural colleges like Umpqua, in Roseburg, Ore., say campus-security experts.

In addition to campus security, Umpqua Community College now could find itself seeking broader mental-health services to support survivors and others in the community.

The Chronicle looked at the particular challenges that community colleges face in terms of campus security and mental-health services. Following are the views of experts in those fields.

Q. How does campus security differ on a community college from other types of institutions?

A. All colleges tend to plan their safety and security measures based on the types of challenges they typically face in their community as well as on their limited resources, said William F. Taylor, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and chief of police at San Jacinto College, in Texas.

Mr. Taylor spoke earlier this year with a group of community-college security directors in Seattle, he said, and many told him they were the only people involved in safety and security on their campuses. It’s a model probably shared by many small colleges, he said.

Administrators at community colleges may be more likely to fill multiple roles than are their counterparts at four-year institutions, said Steven J. Healy, a managing partner and co-founder of Margolis Healy & Associates, a campus-security consulting firm.

Even as more mass shootings have occurred in recent years, there’s a sense of "things like this don’t happen here," he said. "We have to accept that it can happen here. And if we accept that reality, what do we need to do? How should we be addressing that?"

If a college does not have a large security presence on its campus, it’s important to have a strong partnership with the local police, Mr. Healy said, noting that this seemed to be the case at Umpqua.

Q. What challenges do community colleges have in making sure the campus is a safe environment?

A. The student body at a community college is often quite diverse in terms of age, socioeconomic status, and life experiences, said Gene Deisinger, a managing partner at Sigma Threat Management Associates, which does behavioral threat assessments and violence prevention.

Because many students and employees are on the campus only part time, and many campuses aren’t residential, it can be challenging to offer education and awareness programs to prepare for an emergency, he said.

That circumstance can also make it more difficult to quickly assess who should be on the campus and who shouldn’t, said Mr. Taylor. Many community colleges train faculty and staff members, who are more of a constant presence, in emergency response during mandatory orientation sessions.

Q. How has campus security at community colleges changed since the Virginia Tech shootings, in 2007?

A. The massacre at Virginia Tech put a focus on campus security, but the response by four-year colleges outpaced that of two-year colleges, said Jesus M. Villahermosa Jr., founder of the consulting firm Crisis Reality Training.

"When it’s in your own umbrella, it hits home to you more personally, and so therefore you take action more quickly," he said.

Colleges nationwide set up mass-notification systems and tried to determine the risk of a similar event on their campuses by conducting threat assessments, several experts said.

Still, many colleges purchase tools they think will help them respond to an emergency without considering the practical applications, Mr. Villahermosa said. For example, a college should have a recorded public-address announcement prepared in case of a campus lockdown, he said.

And sending mass notifications via text messages can be a problem if a rush of activity affects nearby cellphone towers, he added.

"You’re not responsible for everybody," Mr. Villahermosa said. "You teach everybody an individual survival-plan option."

Q. What do mental-health services look like at community colleges?

A. Eighty-one percent of community colleges provide mental-health services, according to a 2014 survey by the American College Counseling Association.

But most of those institutions have only counselors — psychologists, social workers, even interns — who aren’t trained in psychiatry. They can meet with students and help them with their mental-health needs, but cannot prescribe medication. And compared with 58 percent of four-year institutions, only 8 percent of community colleges offer on-site psychiatry.

When medication is part of a student’s treatment, said the association’s president, Amy M. Lenhart, who is a counselor at Collin County Community College, in Texas, "it may take longer for that student to get help."

When community colleges don’t employ their own counselors, sometimes they offer outsourced services or refer students to off-campus providers. But students’ class schedules and other commitments may not allow them to take advantage of those services, Ms. Lenhart noted.

"It’s hard enough sometimes for a student to reach out and ask for help," she said.

Outsourced counseling services also can be limited, she said. Campus counseling centers may not offer unlimited services, but other providers tend to cut students off after a few appointments, she said. "It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a very serious psychological issue."

Q. Do counselors at community colleges have the same responsibilities as those at four-year colleges?

A. Actually, they tend to have more. Counselors at community colleges might also be academic advisers, career advisers, tutors, or administrative staff members. Or they may hold various other positions, unrelated to counseling.

"It’s just too much," Ms. Lenhart said. "If a counselor has all of those duties, it’s really difficult for them to be there in the capacity of mental-health counseling."

Almost all community-college counselors — 99 percent — have regular duties apart from mental-health counseling, according to the counseling association’s survey. Community colleges don’t always have the funds to properly staff their counseling centers, Ms. Lenhart said, and counselors are usually expected to perform multiple roles.

"You might see somebody for academic advising and then may be expected to see them in a mental-health emergency," she said.

Q. Do students at community colleges have different mental-health needs than those at four-year colleges?

A. Community-college students don’t usually live on the campus — and after events like multiple shootings, where students live will help determine what kind of mental-health care they may need.

"On commuter campuses, getting people to campus to provide some kind of service is more of a challenge," said Susan Quinn, director of student health services at Santa Rosa Junior College, in California. Students who live on the campus, she said, have more peer support and better access to mental-health resources.

Community colleges also have more nontraditional students, she noted. When counseling centers are preparing to provide support, "there’s a certain amount of environmental scanning necessary."

Q. What resources do community colleges have to help students after traumatizing events?

A. Community colleges typically provide services to students through their counseling centers. But they don’t have the mental-health resources that four-year colleges do, and sometimes they have to get creative.

Resource-strapped colleges can train laypeople to recognize and help those in distress, Ms. Quinn said. In responding to a crisis, she said, they can hold open forums. After September 11, 2001, Santa Rosa called a collegewide forum for students who wanted to talk about the terrorist attacks.

Some community colleges deal with resource shortages by employing unlicensed interns. At MiraCosta College, in California, one licensed marriage-and-family therapist supervises eight interns. The college doesn’t have the space or money to hire more licensed staff members, said Marge Reyzer, coordinator of health services. But students are told upfront that they will be seeing interns, and employing more people allows more students to seek counseling.