Before that gunman opened fire in a crowded theater, a work party or an engineering classroom, there were red flags. Most were never reported to authorities.
Reporting of suspicious or threatening behavior is low, and new research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln gives evidence that this troubling trend is true among college students. But it also shows how colleges and universities can make reporting a part of campus culture.
The study, authored by UNL graduate student and former University of Nebraska Public Policy Center research assistant Brandon Hollister, took a comprehensive look at U.S. students’ reporting of pathway behaviors and campus safety concerns, as well as the variables that may have affected reasons for reporting.
“Sadly, when you look at violence on campuses, you find that troubling behaviors tend to not get reported and that’s frankly true for a lot of crime in general,” said Mario Scalora, professor of psychology and the study’s co-author.
Using a survey of 1,735 students, Hollister found that students did not report 87 percent of pathway behaviors – such as stalking, violent statements or weapon acquisition – that they witnessed.
When examining reasons why students decided whether or not to report, those with more positive feelings of campus police and who had not observed prior concerning behavior on campus had a greater willingness to report suspicious behaviors. Reasons for not reporting included fear of police action and peer loyalty.
“These are variables that you can change through interventions, and campus administrators can do certain things to adjust them,” Hollister said. “Police can become very connected to the community they serve and assist people without necessarily having to arrest, and reporting mechanisms can be streamlined.”
Results showed that if a student witnessed more than one incident of problematic behavior, they were more likely to report, which Hollister and Scalora said demonstrated the need for more education on recognizing pathway behaviors.
“People might be waiting until they see multiple concerns from one person before they tell authorities, or they don’t immediately recognize that these behaviors are related to later violence,” Hollister said. “They might see an incidence as a one-time deal, but there is an escalation to violence and if someone is doing one thing that is problematic, they’re likely doing more.”
Hollister said the study builds on targeted violence research and is one of only a few studies to look at reporting behaviors prior to a violent incident.
“I’m focused on what’s getting people to report behaviors,” he said. “Reporting is often the first step in prevention of these attacks. As so much attention has focused upon the extreme behavior, such as shootings, it is important to know that such behaviors have warning signs.”
The study was published in the Journal of School Violence.