Preparing for and responding to campus unrest

Hundreds of students and others have been arrested since April 18 amid civil unrest, protests and demonstrations on college and university campuses across the country. In some instances, recent unrest — largely in response to events in the Middle East — has turned violent, with campus security and local and state police forces clashing with protesters.

Acts of civil disobedience on campus are not likely to cease in the near future, which means higher education institutions must be prepared. Risk professionals and leadership should revisit their crisis management and emergency preparedness plans to ensure they contemplate this issue and that their teams understand their roles and responsibilities in the event of unrest.

Advance planning is essential

Ideally, a college or university will have conducted drills and tabletop exercises before unrest arises on campus. Tabletop exercises can allow organizations — with the help of an outside facilitator — explore how a hypothetical scenario, such as a violent protest on campus, would play out and how a crisis leadership team and other stakeholders would respond.

While titles and department names will vary from school to school, crisis leadership teams should include representation from a school’s executive leadership/administration and various departments. These include security and safety, facilities and grounds, finance, risk management, legal, and communications/public affairs.

Tabletop exercises can allow these teams to identify potential gaps in plans — for example, possible outcomes or action steps they hadn’t previously considered — and update existing business continuity and crisis response plans accordingly. Exercises can also help participants understand their specific roles and responsibilities.

Before a protest is planned for your campus community, meet with your local team to review and discuss your campus response plan. Also ensure all parties understand how local communities plan to respond.

Although on-campus protests to date have generally been peaceful, college and university response plans should contemplate a variety of potential scenarios, including violence. Among other scenarios, campus response plans should address various forms of violence that could arise amid protests, including active shooter threats.

Communicating and coordinating with key stakeholders

It’s important to communicate with broader campus communities, ideally before protests are held or while they are in their early stages. Make clear to students and others what types of speech and actions are acceptable and what will not be tolerated, and help students, faculty, and staff understand the potential threats associated with confronting protesters, and what they should do if peaceful protests turn violent.

Prior to this communication, leadership should consult with counsel to understand local laws regarding speech and picketing — for example, whether expressions of speech on public grounds require permits, whether protesters can be banned from private property, and whether local noise ordinances may limit the time of day and volume of protests.

Schools should ensure that policies and communications apply consistently to various types of speech and protests, to reduce allegations of discrimination against students, faculty, and others involved in demonstrations. Colleges should also secure any confidential, physical information, the unauthorized release of which would constitute a privacy event.

Coordination between campus police/security and local and state first responders is also crucial. Among other actions, campus and local authorities should work together to:

  • Confirm all cameras and video recording equipment on campus are operating properly.

  • Determine what police presence is appropriate.

  • Establish an “all hands on deck” call out in the event protests escalate.

Campus security should walk properties to identify and prepare controls for potentially vulnerable areas. These include entry and exit points, such as doorways, garages, fences, gates, and ground-level glass windows.

Security personnel should also identify vulnerable amenities and objects — such as outdoor furniture, roof terraces, and dumpsters — that could be vandalized or used as weapons. Where necessary, these objects should be secured; campus vehicles that could be damaged should also be removed. At the same time, colleges and universities should monitor their technology systems for possible cyber vandalism, maintain adequate cybersecurity controls and note any suspicious activity.

Insurance considerations

Now is also the time for colleges and universities to review their insurance programs to ensure they understand which forms of coverage may be triggered and are prepared to notify insurers and file claims if necessary. Various insurance policies could respond to potential losses resulting from on-campus unrest, including the following (some of which may be placed within an educator’s legal liability (ELL) program or purchased on a standalone basis):

  • Property and business interruption insurance, which can cover damage to buildings and school grounds.

  • Workers’ compensation and employers’ liability insurance, which can provide coverage for injuries to faculty members and staff.

  • General liability (GL) insurance, which can provide coverage for injuries to students and other nonemployees. (GL policies may respond to injuries caused by local law enforcement, but schools should also consider purchasing law enforcement liability coverage as well.)

  • Auto insurance, which may provide cover for damage to school-owned vehicles on campus if a school’s policy includes first-party physical damage.

  • ELL insurance, which may respond in the event that school leaders face allegations that they have breached their duty to students and faculty — for example, by not maintaining safe environments or allowing students to receive the education they were promised.

  • Employment practices liability insurance, which may respond to allegations from students and faculty that school leaders engaged in discrimination by shutting down protests or suspending students or faculty members for their participation in protests.

  • Reputational risk and crisis management insurance, which may provide coverage for expenses related to public relations and crisis response or may provide access to vendors that may advise on such subjects.

  • Active assailant and/or workplace violence coverage, which may be triggered in the event protests turn violent.

  • Cyber insurance, which may respond in situations involving cyber vandalism, other cyberattacks and privacy events.

  • Media liability insurance, which may respond to allegations of defamation and false arrest or detention.

Command and control

Managing any crisis event entails making timely decisions on a variety of issues. College and university crisis leadership teams should be prepared to meet and to make a number of crucial choices if unrest arises on campus. Ideally, this team can meet daily for the duration of a crisis event and in-person, at a designated command center on campus, although this may not be possible in all circumstances.

Among other decisions, crisis leadership teams will be responsible for:

  • Coordinating with local response leaders. It’s important that all parties understand their specific roles and responsibilities.

  • Monitoring news sources for information about protest activity. Social media can be a particularly useful way for crisis teams to assess potential threats, as protesters may use it to organize demonstrations and other activities.

  • Determining escalation triggers and protocols. Consider, for example, what actions to take if the safety and security of students and faculty are threatened. Also consider what specific events would prompt a decision to cancel classes and/or lock down a campus.

  • Devising a strategy for communicating with students, faculty, and the public. Schools should be careful and considerate in making press statements about protests and other events on campus, as they could give rise to defamation claims.

For more information, contact a member of your Lockton Risk Control Services (opens a new window) team or Lockton’s Education Practice.