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    November 2019

    A Guide to Prepare Your Institution for Violent Protests on Campus

    In times of very polarized politics, higher education institutions sometimes face serious risks from speakers or extremist groups coming to campus to create conflict, intimidate, or even incite violence. By preparing for potentially violent protests on campus, institutions can help keep the community safe while allowing peaceful demonstrations and supporting civil discourse.

    This guide details steps institutions should take so they will be prepared when protests create a threat. 

    Focus on Safety

    Campus protests are an important part of civil discourse, but the campus community’s safety must be the top priority. Institutions must put plans in place to prevent outside protests from turning violent, and for responding if violent protests occur.

    • Update the institution’s crisis response plan. The crisis management team should update the plan regularly. Consider whether the plan anticipates peaceful protests becoming violent. Incorporate lessons learned from incidents on other campuses. Clearly define when a protest becomes a safety threat and an action plan to protect the campus community, up to and including sheltering in place or evacuating parts of campus.
    • Conduct drills and tabletops. Hold drills and tabletop exercises to probe for weaknesses in the institution’s crisis response plan. Include key actions such as communication with students and parents about planned protests, methods for keeping protests peaceful, responses when violence erupts, and sharing of information following a protest.
    • Create protocols and update policies. Institutions may have a variety of policies that are applicable to potentially violent protests, including policies addressing registration of on-campus events, use of public spaces, campus safety, protests, civil disobedience, campus policing, and student codes of conduct. A comprehensive review can identify policies that must be updated or clarified.
    • Engage with your campus community. Plan ahead before protests occur. Clearly communicate the institution’s position on free speech and violence. Educate students, faculty, and staff about potential dangers of confronting protesters and counter-protestors.
    • Designate a spokesperson. Anticipate questions from students, parents, faculty, staff, and the local community, both leading up to a controversial protest and in the event of actual violence. Draft and practice key messages and responses. Create a plan for monitoring and responding on social media.

    Legal and Campus Security Considerations

    Campus protests also can have legal implications.

    • Know the laws regarding use of your public spaces. Public and private institutions face different restrictions on use of public spaces. State and local laws and institutional policies also can play a role. While it may be impossible to exclude a group or speaker, institutions often can restrict the location, time, and nature of a protest. Legal counsel can guide the institution about what limits may be imposed.
    • Train campus security forces. Whether the campus has a sworn police department or private security force, every institution should ensure campus security is equipped and trained to deal with potential violence. De-escalation training can be particularly effective in preventing violence once campus security becomes involved. (For more information on risks of the use of force by campus security and the potential benefits of de-escalation training, see United Educators’ (UE’s)  claims study on Excessive Force by Campus Security.)
    • Take additional steps if your campus allows visitors to carry guns. Consult with legal counsel to understand whether it is possible to impose weapons restrictions at a potentially violent protest. Make sure campus security forces are trained and appropriately equipped to confront armed protesters. 
    • Work with local police. Reach out to local law enforcement and be prepared to request help. If the institution does not have a memorandum of understanding in place with local police, now is a good time to create one. Examine options for how to involve the National Guard if necessary.

    Gather Information

    In addition to general safety planning, institutions should take these steps to prepare:

    • Recognize that your institution could be a target for extremists. Colleges and universities are increasingly becoming targets for extremist groups hoping to attract media attention, so vigilance is important.
    • Learn about the proposed speaker or protesters, particularly in terms of past behavior. In addition to searching through news reports and social media, check resources like the Southern Poverty Law Center for relevant background information. Your campus also can solicit information from peer institutions that previously have allowed the speaker or group on campus.
    • Request details from controversial speakers or protesters prior to the visit. Once the institution has notice of a controversial speaker or planned protest, request details regarding how many people may come to campus, where these people plan to assemble, the nature of their activities, and how long they intend to stay. The group may not know or may misrepresent these details, so the institution may need to gather data from other sources or by reviewing past protests by the group.

    During a Protest

    Once a protest begins, institutions should be vigilant for potentially intimidating or violent activities.

    Watch for intimidating or threatening activities from crowds of protesters and counter-protesters. Public institutions should remember that the First Amendment does not protect directly threatening or violent speech. Be prepared to act if protestors cross those lines. Consult with legal counsel to understand how these rules apply to your institution.

    More From United Educators

    Strategies to Minimize Unrest After Racially Charged Incidents Occur on Campus

    Responding to Controversial Events on Campus: A United Educators Symposium

    Checklist for Handling Controversial Speakers on Campus

    Excessive Force by Campus Security


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