Over the last several weeks gun violence has erupted on and off college campuses throughout the United States. Serene environments were shattered by senseless deaths at Northern Arizona University, Umpqua Community College, Texas Southern University and Tennessee State University. College communities of varying sizes are fighting an epidemic that touches the lives of Americans in urban, rural and suburban neighborhoods. The deaths have led some to question gun laws. Unfortunately, in comparison to previous years more states allow students to carry concealed weapons on campus. Whether the policy will lead to fewer on campus incidents is unclear. A 2010, study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found that from 2005-2008 the total murder/non-negligent manslaughter cases at institutions of higher education totaled 174. Although the number of incidents pales in comparison to the overall number of administrators, faculty, students and auxiliary staff on college campuses post secondary institutions have to be prepared to provide comprehensive therapeutic services to survivors of traumatic experiences.
Recently HBCUs including Texas Southern University and Tennessee State University experienced on campus shootings that will have a long-term impact on the campus community. Witnesses or survivors of violence sometimes suffer from panic attacks and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Individuals suffering from PTSD relive events that can affect their ability to focus, complete simple and complex tasks. Consequently, how universities respond to survivors is important. Developing a comprehensive plan in consultation with the university counseling center/wellness center, local and state health officials could mediate the incidents impact on the academic performance and social emotional functioning of students.
After an incident, universities have to monitor survivors to ensure they feel supported. This should include mental health checks during winter, spring and summer breaks. Trauma can have a lingering impact on the lives of survivors without a major shift in personality. Moreover, because members of the Black community resist seeking support for anxiety or mental health struggles it is imperative that HBCUs work in conjunction with trained counselors. Students from HBCUs may be more likely to be exposed to previous traumatic events because they come from predominantly low and moderate-income communities.
Recently The Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions published a research brief I wrote titled “Trauma, Environmental Stressors and the African-American College Student: Research: Research, Practice and HBCUs.” The study found that students at a public HBCU were exposed to variety of traumatic experiences including gun violence. The survivors at Tennessee State and Texas Southern may have been exposed to previous events that could lead to a cascading effect. They may struggle to cope with the recent trauma, which could be problematic. For this reason, both institutions should consider the following:
- Assign counselors to students that meet regularly on or off campus to provide support. Mental health check ups are critical for individuals struggling to understand random acts of violence.
- Develop a mental health alert team prepared to meet and develop a plan for students, faculty and staff after a traumatic event. Survivors with immediate access to a mental health practitioner may be more likely to seek help in the future.
- Ensure new and returning students understand they have access to counselors who are prepared to discuss important issues at any time.
- Utilize social media after a violent incident on or off campus that provides members of the community with the contact information for trained mental health professionals.
Far too often intimate partner and random acts of violence shatter collegial environments designed to nurture the academic, emotional and social development of students. HBCUs have to be prepared to deploy services after violent events. While some HBCUs have developed task forces and committees committed to preventing tragedies; societal issues including gun violence will continue to challenge university leaders. How they respond will determine whether students and faculty feel safe or choose another post secondary institution.