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Subcommittee Reports - Response

Scope of Work
Current Assessment

Scope of Work
The Response Subcommittee was tasked to “review and evaluate current safety plans” and is comprised of university police chiefs, public safety directors, faculty with expertise in criminal science and emergency response, public health professionals and officials from the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security.


The massacre at Virginia Tech, undeniably horrific, is not the first campus tragedy played out in the national media. The 1970 Marshall University and 2001 Oklahoma State University plane crashes that took the lives of so many; the 1999 collapse of the Texas A&M bonfire; Seton Hall’s dormitory fire the following year that killed three students; the University of Texas tower shootings in 1966 followed by Kent State four years later – many of us can recall these events. However, prior to Virginia Tech, there was little training for campus leadership, student personnel and faculty on how to respond swiftly and appropriately to such tragedies. Postsecondary education faculty and staff lacked comprehensive understanding of young adult grief, securing and informing the campus community, adequate and compassionate response measures for grieving families, and as it relates directly to the work of the CLASS Task Force, statewide guidelines and protocols.

It is estimated that 6,000 college-aged adults die annually in the United States.1 The reality is that most of those young adults die as the result of an accident or, secondly, by suicide. Therefore, our ability to respond to these unfortunate but much more likely events is just as critical to the work before the CLASS Task Force. Furthermore, campuses can sustain devastation without the loss of human life. Just recently, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College flooded – six feet of water on the football field, dormitories ruined, records lost and the Environmental Protection Agency canvassing the grounds to assess biohazard dangers.

Response to any of these events requires multilateral measures – security, dissemination, counseling for our students, staff, students’ families and the wider community. Yet, prior to the 1990s, little was written on how student affairs staff specifically should train for and implement response measures to campus violence, accidents and disasters. In 1972, Death and the College Student was published at Harvard – a collection of student essays on their experiences and perceptions of death. Jossey-Bass printed Coping with Death on Campus in 1985.2 Beyond these two publications, there has been very limited published research on campus response to tragedy.

College student mental health counselors expanded their knowledge of young adult suicide, reckless behavior and mental illnesses in the 1990s. Unfortunately, this rarely translated to training of campus leadership, resident hall staff and other student affairs personnel. In the wake of thousands of student injuries and deaths due to alcohol consumption that received considerable media attention in the latter half of the decade, many campuses developed or greatly enhanced what are commonly referred to as CIRTs – critical incident response teams.

Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence demonstrates that higher education personnel sense that they are still unprepared. What should a resident hall advisor say to floormates when one student stabs her roommate and then hangs herself in the shower?3 What do we expect from our faculty when a bomb threat is called in?4 What is our notification protocol if we are the ones to inform a family that their child has been killed by a drunk driver?

The sheer number of “campus crises” task forces and workshops currently taking place attests to our collective sense that we have a professional obligation to implement procedures, protocols and training for multiple staff pools. One proactive approach is scenario work.5 Campuses with established CIRTs, such as the University of Central Oklahoma, Texas A&M University and Penn State Erie, make the deliberate choice to expose their staff to “what if” situations, much like first-responder training completed by firefighters, the Red Cross and hospitals. Staff may need guidance on:

Scenario training works best when personnel are enhancing their preparedness yet are not expecting a critical incident because these events – a student’s suicide, a lab explosion – are rarely anticipated. Campuses often implement scenario work in two ways:

Another practice gaining momentum is inviting first responders, community agencies and grief support networks to speak to campus staff. For example, emergency room personnel, the city morgue, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Parents of Murdered Children,6 OSHA ,7 the FBI, diverse spiritual leaders and suicidologists. Each of these enriches a campus’ ability to respond in a security-minded, timely, inclusive and compassionate manner.

Today, there is considerable public perception that our campuses are potential killing grounds (we should keep in mind that high schools endured the same criticism in the aftermath of mass shootings such as Columbine). Yet, the truth is that the vast majority of high school and college students die as the result of accidental deaths and suicides. Our response to campus crises is partly responding in the moment, but just as much, preparing to the best of our abilities. The events at Virginia Tech spurred campuses and higher education coordinating boards to review their critical incident response measures. We must ensure that our approach is holistic, recognizing the uniqueness of each campus, the diversity of our students and the resources that can be utilized by collaborating with one another and wider communities.


Current Assessment
Discussion in the first meeting of the Response Subcommittee centered on how to best assess the ability of Oklahoma postsecondary institutions to respond to a crisis event on their campuses. Three approaches were discussed:

Concerns were expressed within the Response Subcommittee (and other subcommittees) about the feasibility (in terms of time constraints) and capability (lack of expertise) of having the CLASS Task Force read, review and assess every emergency response plan for every Oklahoma postsecondary institution. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Campus Preparedness Assessment was determined to be more of a series of self-assessments and activities designed to assist campuses in developing response protocols rather than an assessment of actual established plans. To fully accomplish this task would require a year or more. As a result of these concerns, discussion migrated toward developing an assessment instrument. Therefore, an existing survey of K-12 security issues, previously used by the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security, was modified to assess postsecondary institution milieus. A review of the survey by other subcommittees garnered a few additional suggestions and wordsmithing.

The survey developed, “Self Assessment of Campus Security and Vulnerability to Acts of Terrorism,” contains several sections:


The CLASS assessment survey was instrumental in discreetly identifying issues of campus security and safety amongst Oklahoma’s postsecondary institutions. Based upon the survey results, the following recommendations are brought forward:

State Level, General Recommendations

  1. Develop a campus emergency response plan template for each postsecondary sector – career technology centers, community colleges and universities. A standardized template would assure that every campus appropriately covers all potential security and safety issues in their emergency response plans. In addition, a standard documentation structure would be extremely helpful to external agencies that may be called in to assist with large-scale incidents. Emergency plan elements to be addressed should include communications (with parents, media, faculty, staff and first responders), training on the plan, continuity of operations and blueprints of facilities, if applicable.

  2. Schedule emergency-response training annually, possibly facilitated by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education and the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education. Provide no-cost training to all postsecondary institutions and for multiple stakeholders: mental health counselors, residence and student life staff, community first responders, faculty, hazardous material teams, public relations personnel, campus health center workers, etc. Utilize outside resources such as emergency room personnel, bereavement support groups and mental health specialists to enhance training.

  3. Identify and consistently disseminate resources campuses can use for in-house training.

  4. Establish state-level review committee to evaluate campus plans every few years.

  5. Establish continuing entity to review campus security issues and to make recommendations. This entity will need to be financially supported as necessary. Entities mentioned as possible repositories include the CLASS Task Force, the CLASS Response Subcommittee and the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security. It is recommended that the CLASS Response Subcommittee remains a standing, advisory committee after the submission of their report to the governor’s office.

Specific recommendations generated based upon the results of the self-assessment survey (categorized by the specific area addressed in the survey)

  1. Planning, Polices and Procedures
  1. Emergency Response and Training
  1. Facility and Campus Maintenance
  1. Students and Staff
  1. Technological Capabilities
  1. Cost


1Iserson, K. (1999). Grave words: Notifying survivors about sudden, unexpected deaths. Tuscon, AZ: Galen Press. BACK
2Both are currently out of print. BACK
3This event took place at Harvard University in 1995. BACK
4For example, Tulsa Community College in March 2007. BACK
5Griffith, S. and Taylor Weathers, E. “Instructional scenarios for critical incident response team training” in College student death: Guidance for a caring campus (2007). Lanham, MD: University Press of America in conjunction with ACPA. BACK
7Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a federal agency. BACK