Recently, Coastal Carolina University officials faced what many are calling the first “active shooter” incident in the school’s history, and some in the media (and general public) have criticized the university’s decision to reopen the campus and resume normal operations on the morning following the shooting. Criticism and the objective analysis of any organization’s actions during a crisis can be, naturally, a valid exercise. The criticism leveled at CCU, however, appears to be based upon some faulty logic and perhaps a misunderstanding of the calculus used to make such decisions in an institutional setting.
Laypersons often misinterpret not only what threat assessment specialists refer to as “risk,” but the methodologies employed to assess and mitigate those risks. Threat assessment practices are too complex to fully dissect in this space. Threat and risk assessment protocols, which CCU no doubt ran all throughout the evening as law enforcement busied themselves identifying and locating the suspect, serve primarily to provide as much information to decision-makers as is humanly possible.
These protocols, however, are not magical. They do not produce “profiles” to be used as decision-points or evidence; no “checklist” can score the risk and make a decision for a law enforcement official or school administrator; and no threat assessment system, no matter how well designed, can detect and interdict all violence.
Although I have provided such advice to educational institutions in the past, I was in no way connected to the CCU incident and have no direct information other than what has been reported in the media. Therefore, the following brief analysis my “best guess,” an effort to explain how decisions must be made in these types of critical situations.
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First, parents and students should understand that school officials undertook much thought and preparation attendant to on-campus violence well before the night of Feb. 26. CCU officials obviously had a plan for these incidents, and by all accounts their initial actions (law enforcement’s physical response, notifications, and lockdown-type safety protocols) appeared to work as well as can be reasonably expected during these highly-charged and dynamic incidents.
Once threats such as on-campus gun violence have been identified by a threat assessment system, the system must assess the probability and criticality of the occurrence. Again, CCU appears to have passed this test, in that they had a plan which had been trained well enough to be implemented as intended.
Finally, threat assessment systems must recognize that the system will inevitably fail to identify every single threat before it materializes. This is not a sign of systemic failure; it is, rather, a signal to move into the mitigation phase, where officials do whatever is possible to prevent additional harm. CCU’s decision to re-open their campus occurred during the mitigation phase, and I contend that it most likely represented a decision made after an appropriate assessment of the risks inherent to these situations.
Although many refer to the CCU incident as an active shooter or campus shooting, from a threat assessment standpoint it would appear that the incident would be more accurately described as a fairly typical firearm assault by an acquaintance, which by happenstance occurred on the fringes of a university campus.
CCU’s call that this shooting represented a tragic and senseless act but was not a rampage-shooting incident which likely posed a continuing threat to students and faculty was the correct one, both in context and in hindsight. Congratulations to the CCU Department of Public Safety and the university’s administration for their handling of what was surely a horrible 48 hours for everyone involved.
The writer is former police chief of Surfside Beach and a trained campus safety instructor.