Duty of Care: Universities Maintain ‘Special Relationship’ with Students

On March 22nd, the California Supreme Court unanimously determined that universities have a duty to protect their students from foreseeable acts of violence by other students. The particular case, in which the plaintiff was attacked with a knife in a chemistry lab on campus by a fellow classmate, falls into a larger, national conversation about school safety — from Pre-K through university. What responsibilities do education institutions hold in maintaining a safe learning environment for their pupils?

California’s highest court is the first to assert that a “special relationship” exists between a college and its students. Justice Carol A. Corrigan explained on behalf of the court: “Students are comparatively vulnerable and dependent on their colleges for a safe environment. Colleges have a superior ability to provide that safety with respect to activities they sponsor or facilities they control.” Similar dependencies exist in other ‘special relationships,’ whereby the group with more control over the maintenance of a safe environment is thus morally (and often legally) responsible for guaranteeing that safety. For example, this dynamic exists between bus drivers and passengers, companies and employees, and parents and their children. That California has ruled that universities have duty of care obligations to their student body has potentially nationwide implications.

Duty of Care on campus: no longer ignorable

Since the February mass shooting at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the topic of school safety has entered the national consciousness with a new sense of urgency. While the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, and now Parkland in 2018, raised public concern over student safety at the Elementary through High School levels, massacres such as the one at Virginia Tech in 2007 remind us that college campuses are also uniquely vulnerable to such tragedies. In fact, according to a list compiled by Ranker, five of the top ten, and 13 of the top 25 deadliest school shootings occurred on college campuses across the nation.

In addition to the backdrop of school shootings, the California ruling comes at a particularly sensitive moment in campus discourse. Other high-profile college phenomenon, such as sexual violence, deplatforming riots, and the college party culture, have elicited heated debate in recent years about the university’s role in safeguarding the physical and mental well-being of their student body. The duty of care obligation that California bestowed upon universities in that state means that college administrators across the nation must now prepare their institutions with safety protocols that will provide a safe learning environment and satisfy their legal obligation.


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How to protect a campus environment

Several factors that are unique to university life make the task of protecting students on a college campus arguably the most challenging of all education levels. For one, most universities have facilities spread across a large area — some in shared urban settings, others in defined campuses apart from the local community. Regardless of campus type, universities face similar challenges in securing their properties and accounting for all students, staff, and faculty in the event of an emergency or lockdown. The adoption of mass notifications delivered directly to mobile phones has enhanced the speed of communicating critical campus safety messages, but such systems lack the two-way communication capabilities that would allow students and personnel to “check-in” that they are safe or initiate an SOS to indicate that they are in danger. With duty of care responsibilities, colleges will need to enhance their ability to communicate with students in emergencies.

Another challenge to maintaining a safe campus environment is accessibility. As institutions of learning and civic engagement, many university facilities and resources are open to the public throughout the week. With the exception of housing facilities, malevolent actors have easy access to lecture halls, libraries, performance centers, and other high-traffic buildings — not to mention the quintessential open-air quads that are filled with activity throughout the day. There is no changing the welcoming atmosphere of a college campus environment; to do so would threaten the values of higher education institutions themselves. However, the disparate security systems of today need to be upgraded to the converged security of tomorrow: joining physical security and cybersecurity solutions into a holistic, reinforcing system.

Enhanced Situational Awareness now: the GuardianAngel Platform

With duty of care responsibilities looming, universities must begin to establish next-generation systems and protocols now to ensure that the protection of their students is complete. When an emergency arises, when a campus goes into lockdown, communication with the entire university community must be immediate and multi-channel, incident response times must be enhanced through automated alarms, physical and digital security systems must be integrated into one, consolidated, real-time view of the situation, and campus security and local authorities must maintain a common operating picture so that responses are coordinated and accurate.

A comprehensive, affordable, and effective solution to on-campus threats is achievable through technology like the GuardianAngel Platform. As an Enhanced Situational Awareness (ESA) solution, GuardianAngel is uniquely positioned to provide universities (and other campus-based organizations) a platform that seamlessly integrates existing security systems with visual analytics software, creating the contextual awareness and geospatial intelligence required to meet minimum duty of care obligations.

GuardianAngel is technology-agnostic, meaning it can integrate with all of the following security systems that an organization may already utilize:

  • Access Control systems
  • Camera systems with live video stream capability
  • e-911 Dispatch
  • Personal security devices for all teachers and administrators
  • Custom mobile applications for students
  • Automatic locking mechanisms on all campus facilities

The need for enhanced security measures at schools in America is abundantly clear. Especially given the recent California Supreme Court ruling on duty of care responsibilities for universities, the time is now for implementing the next-generation solution of converged, holistic security systems, measures, and protocols.

TigerSwan is uniquely positioned to offer such a solution. Our collective experience in law enforcement, intelligence, and asymmetric threat mitigation informs our understanding of the threat facing vulnerable soft targets such as university campuses. The GuardianAngel Platform can provide a seamless bridge between students and faculty in schools and the emergency response teams in their community.

In our next blog post, we will outline our two-phase process for implementing the Enhanced Situational Awareness GuardianAngel Platform.