College campuses struggle with mass shooting epidemic
Updated: May 4
By Lara Tole
A typical day for a college student means negotiating constant deadlines - getting to class on time, finding time to get coffee between class, making plans for that group project before rushing to a job, and generally battling the constant desire to procrastinate rather than just forcing yourself to work.
What no college student wants to negotiate is where to hunker down when an active shooter is on campus.
But that’s been happening for far too many college students lately.
From the University of Virginia, to the University of Idaho, to Michigan State, the 2022-23 academic year has been a deadly one for college students.
College campuses, usually considered safe havens for young adults to focus on studies - have increasingly become sites of devastating mass shootings, leaving communities shattered and raising urgent questions about how to prevent these tragedies from happening again.
America’s mass shooting problem
Since 2006, there have been 776 public fatal mass killings in America, making the United States the top country for such violence.
A mass killing is defined as any time three or more people are murdered in a single incident, and most of these are situations that happen in private homes and generally among family members.
But when a mass killing is done in a public place - such as at a school, church, concert or night club - and the killer is targeting random people in a populated area, it is classified as a mass shooting.
While mass shootings are not as prevalent as mass killings, gun violence generally is
becoming far too common in America, with hundreds of innocent victims killed each year.
Horrific scenes from mass shootings have headlined the news for decades, with 1,363 people shot and killed between 2009 and 2020.
And unfortunately, college campuses have not been immune.
In fact, just this academic year, three major incidents on college campuses have made headlines - three shot and killed at the University of Virginia in November of 2022, four stabbed to death at the University of Idaho in November of 2022 and three shot and killed at Michigan State University in February.
While mass shootings occur less frequently than mass killings and only a few of those incidents have taken place on college campuses, several college students throughout the country are experiencing anxiety when considering their safety from such violent events.
Student reactions to campus shootings
Studies have shown that exposure to news coverage of mass shootings on college campuses can lead to significant levels of psychological distress and trauma among students and faculty members, even if they were not directly involved in the incident.
Since 2006 (the first year data on mass killings has been compiled), 13 mass shootings have occurred on school campuses.
While some have had more fatalities or received more media attention than others, the psychological toll on anyone paying attention tends to be the same.
Those who experience an event through media coverage, social media posts, or other sources like online videos may have typical responses such as heightened stress, irritability, and sadness as well.
Chad Buck, a clinical psychologist, recalled a school shooting that happened in his small town in 1993 when a 17-year-old student took his father’s revolver, walked into a high school classroom in Buck’s hometown of Grayson, Kentucky.
“There were profiles on nightly and morning news programs for weeks, and several newspaper and magazine articles about the shooting were published over the years,” Buck recalled in an essay in 2018. “Although the media coverage eventually ended, the violation and loss caused by one person’s actions continue to affect my hometown and its current and former residents 25 years later.”
Charlotte Jones, a senior at the College of Charleston, is unnerved every time a mass shooting happens.
“I feel really scared that it could possibly happen in my college town, I mean, there's nothing really you can do because I feel like it just comes out of nowhere and that is the scariest part. It is all up to being prepared for the worst,” says Jones.
Ally Madigan, a senior at Elon University, reads all the news on campus shootings since it always fills up her social media feeds.
“I think it's always very startling because you never think it's going to happen at your own school,” she said. “So, it's scary to see that any day can start off with how it usually does and end in the worst way possible. It brings me loads of stress, especially when sitting in a classroom.”
Alex DeVivo, a senior at Rutgers University, has become more aware of her surroundings since so many of these tragedies are occuring at other universities all around her.
“When I hear about shooting at a college campus, I get a little nervous and at nighttime, I make sure all my doors are locked, and to never be alone anymore,” says DeVivo.
This feeling of nervousness and anxiety causes students to take on different safety precautions, as a result.
A third of U.S. adults say that fear of mass shootings stops them from going to certain places and events.
Nearly one in three adults (32%) feel they cannot go anywhere without worrying about being a victim of a mass shooting, while just about the same number (33%) say fear prevents them from going to certain places or events.
Nearly one-quarter (24%) of adults report changing how they live their lives because of fear of a mass shooting.
When asked which places they are stressed about the possibility of a mass shooting occurring, adults most commonly say a public event (53%), mall (50%), school or university (42%) or movie theater (38%), with only one in five (21%) saying they never experience stress as a result of the possibility of a mass shooting.
Jones has acted differently since these tragedies have occurred, something she never saw herself having to be worried about.
“I am making sure that I am always walking with people, not that it really helps in some situations, but trying not to be alone is a huge change I have made. Also, making sure you are sharing locations with your friends, knowing where anyone is at all times,” states Jones.
Madigan has also made changes to the safety precautions she takes on campus.
“I always make sure to lock my doors now because I never really used to and now whenever I leave the house, I make sure that my windows and doors are always locked,” states Madigan.
DeVivo now takes pepper spray with her at all times, in case she finds herself in a scary situation at her Rutgers campus.
Jones says she has been thinking lately about seniors in high school deciding on where to go to college and how safety precautions given by colleges have had a huge impact on their decisions.
“Four years ago when I was applying to colleges, safety was barely a factor in my decisions. I just had hoped that with whatever school I had decided to go to, it was going to be a safe place to live, but now my younger sister who is deciding where to go to college is taking safety as her top priority,” says Jones.
Madigan believes she would have definitely taken safety precautions into consideration, as well.
“Although I am graduating college and don’t have to think about finding a new university anymore, I can’t stop thinking about how I would be able to choose a school that I believed was ‘safe’ with all of this going on,” says Madigan.
Madigan also states that this is something she will fear for the rest of her life, especially when her future kids are in this position.
“Being in college with all of this occurring, brings me more anxiety added on rather than just the usual school work and making sure I graduate on time. Every time I hear about the next shooting, the fear stays with me for weeks, with a pit in my stomach, thinking about what if it is me or someone I know as the next victim, all I want is to be safe”, says Madigan.
As a result of the frequency of campus shootings, many students have been forced to re-evaluate and modify their safety measures while on campus, something they wish never had to take place.
Changes on campuses
Campus shootings have prompted significant changes in security and safety protocols on college campuses across the United States. After two mass shootings last spring - the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school and the Buffalo, New York, grocery store - universities got together in a webinar over the summer to discuss better ways to prevent gun violence on campuses.
Marisa Randazzo, executive director of threat management at Ontic, a protective intelligence software company, told educators that assessing behavioral threats on campus could help prevent mass shootings.
She added that someone planning a mass shooting usually tells others of their plans ahead of time - whether it's on social media or in homework assignments. Many perpetrators will make their plans public, she said, because they want to be stopped.
"The most important message I want everyone to take away from this is that it is absolutely possible to prevent acts of violence within our educational institutions,” Randazzo said.
“School shootings are preventable, because the people who engage in them—and they’re often students—follow this detectable pathway to violence,” says Randazzo.
DeVivo believes there could be a way to prevent this as well.
“I think most schools should require students to have to scan in with IDs rather than buildings being open for anyone to be able to walk through,” says DeVivo.
Madigan believes there should be more detailed checkups on people on these campuses.
“I think there should definitely be better protocols on how to handle these situations. Also, better checkups on people on campuses, just to prevent it from happening at other schools,” states Madigan.
James Allen Fox is a NorthEastern professor who maintains the longest- running and most extensive data source on mass killings.
Since the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, there are 20 states that permit guns on college campuses.
Campuses across the country are trying to make sure they are prepared for the very worst.
At the College of Charleston, they ensure that their students will be safe if situations are handled efficiently.
The College’s campus safety directors train countless hours to be prepared for emergency situations, such as an active shooter.
Jones, a CofC senior, believes the information sent out to her phone is very important and something all schools should have.
A “Cougar” Alert is sent out by phone, text, and email as soon as possible after determining a threat exists.
“Run.Hide.Fight” is a common college campus saying in surviving an active shooter event.
The impact of mass shootings on college campuses have affected many throughout the country, even those not directly involved in the incidents.
It is important for students and staff to be aware of their surroundings and understand certain safety precautions.
With more mass shootings occurring than days in 2023, our country is being destroyed by gun mass violence.