Managing Risk in Our Work with Student Organizations // written by: John Summerlot & Ben Williams

John Summerlot
Indiana University Bloomington

Ben Williams
University of Colorado Boulder

Emergencies have timelines: there are the events that precede an emergency, the emergency itself, and the events that happen after the emergency. In the military, everything before the emergency is referred to as “Left of Bang.”  Bang is the point where an emergency situation occurs. Everything “Right of Bang” is after the event has happened (Van Horne & Riley, 2014). While risk can be managed in all three of these stages, the steps taken to mitigate risk while left of bang help prepare us to respond when bang occurs. Here is a sample scenario:

It is a Saturday in April and you have a group of students headed on an overnight weekend trip to a big city to visit museums and attend a theater show. They leave via bus and you wave to your student leaders and graduate assistant as they pull away. That afternoon as you enjoy your social media hiatus in the peace and quiet of your back porch with a good book, you get a text message from your graduate assistant “Have you heard anything about an explosion near the theater? Should we be worried?” Bang. 

There may be no worse feeling for most student affairs professionals than that phone call from a student leader that something has gone wrong at an event or on a trip. And nothing reassures you faster than them saying they have enacted their emergency plan and are taking the necessary steps to mitigate the issue. This article will address some of the best practices with training student leaders and student staff to plan, prepare, mitigate and respond to emergencies encountered at student events or while on trips. 

In this article, we focus on emergency preparedness and planning as a method of risk assessment. The focus is on supporting student groups; yet, individual students, such as those on study abroad trips, can likewise benefit from the information shared herein. We have intentionally avoided direct discussion of “risk management” or “risk managers.” Those terms have become shorthand for many additional aspects of student life, such as the sober student at a party tasked with monitoring those that are drinking, and do not capture the wider scope of our focus. While many universities have a long list of prohibited events and activities due to risk management policies, those should be seen as companions to, not substitutes for good emergency preparedness and planning. 

Identifying the Risk within Campus Events

The conversation on risk management and emergency preparedness changes along with shifts in campus activities. One component of mitigating emergency events is to consider how to moderate the risk involved with whichever activities are currently popular among students, the typical events sponsored by student organizations, and any long respected campus traditions. For most higher education institutions, there are a number of student events each year that are overseen and managed to some extent by the institution and its staff. This includes the largest 10-20% of annual events, such as a campus 5K race, dance marathon, bonfire, concert, bike race, or other major event. Preparation for such large events generally include efforts to coordinate with campus public safety and to review any safety plans in place from previous years of experience. This planning cannot prevent emergencies—such as the 1999 Texas A&M bonfire collapse–but it can raise awareness around preparedness and mitigation. The other 80-90% of student events and trips are smaller scale, planned almost entirely by students (and maybe an advisor or two), and may or may not have ever been done before. These are the events on which we likely need to focus most heavily on raising awareness and consciousness around the need to implement emergency preparedness and mitigation policies.

Planned vs. Unplanned Risks

As professionals, we often view an event—for instance, a ski trip—and immediately think of the risks. These are the “planned risks.” But do we see any planned risks with the Chess Club competing in a tournament at a nearby campus?  We often focus most heavily on the activity around which the trip is based rather than the trip itself. That is, we are more likely to be concerned about student participation in high impact activities such as skiing, and less concerned about low impact activities such as playing chess. The important gap this reveals is that risk management is only a focus for activities in which we easily see the risk. As professionals, it is important we also develop processes to assess all risk regardless of the activity. 

This tendency to neglect the risk of student travel has proven insufficient many times, especially with campus athletic teams. For example, when the Niagara University women’s basketball team took to the road in November 2014, the risk management focus was on athletic injuries with minimal concern for travel. However, they ended up getting stuck on the interstate in their team bus for over 24 hours in four feet of snow just 30 minutes from campus. The concerns for the student athletes’ injuries was addressed with appropriate staffing, but there were no plans for what they needed to do when they got stuck on the bus. The planned risk is the injuries and the unplanned risk is the being buried in snow. Luckily, they were also an athletic team with a bus and significant university support. Had they been the chess club, the university might have had considerably less awareness about their situation (and they might not have been breaking news on ESPN). 

Promising Practices for Mitigating Risk in Student Events

In order to plan for, mitigate and prepare for emergencies, cross-campus partnerships need to be in place before an event occurs. Student affairs staff responsible for planning or advising on student trips and events need to know who in public safety, emergency management, and risk management can be a resource. Resources can be both people with knowledge or connections as well as physical things. We have outlined four promising practices for mitigating the risk associated with student events.

Develop Your Network of Campus Contacts 

Trip leaders and advisors need to know who they can call to get real time information and who on campus can support mobilizing additional resources. These same campus contacts need to be involved in training staff and student leaders on how to plan for and mitigate emergencies. A promising practice is to have someone from your university who is familiar with the university’s emergency response plans do a regularly scheduled training session for your student leaders and staff on how to assess the risks and possible emergencies for trips and events. Indiana University Office of Emergency Management and Continuity does such a training multiple times a year for different student and staff groups. Having the emergency management staff members to conduct the training allows those in attendance to develop a connection to those staff and that office. These connections have proved fruitful as student organizations later work on developing their individualized risk management plans for events and responding to emergencies that arise during their events.

Ensure Proper Training of Campus Professionals

Develop training processes and documents for campus employees.  Zdziarski, Rollo, and Dunkel (2007) provide a Crisis Matrix as “a conceptual model developed to provide a basic framework for assessing a crisis, determining the impact on campus community, and identifying considerations in responding to the crisis” (pp. 36-37). As student affairs professionals, applying the matrix to work with students and organizations in travel and event planning gives an initial framework to critically examine risk and assist students and staff to develop competency in the area of risk management and crisis response. 

A second step is to use what emergency management professionals call planned emergencies. Ask event services, public safety, athletics, or whomever is involved with upcoming large events on your campus if you can shadow them in their planning and management of a large event in order to get the professional development experience. A large event, such as a football game, commencement, or a controversial speaker can give you a variety of considerations. Doing so multiple times at different kinds of events will further expand that experience. The better prepared you are to guide your students through the planning process the better off they will be.

Develop Risk Management Training for Student Organizations

Another practice is to have reference materials and trainings accessible through in-person or online delivery for student organizations. For example, the University of Florida provides an event planning manual, which provides a comprehensive process for student organizations to use to plan for and mitigate risk as part of their events. Additionally, the manual discusses the importance of risk management, provides a checklist that should be used by students when planning for travel, and includes a timeline for students preparing for a trip. This resource breaks down the daunting task of risk management into a straightforward process that students can use and staff can replicate easily. 

Risk mitigation, emergency preparedness, and crisis management are generally co-curricular skills that students do not learn in the classroom and even more rarely do they have a laboratory to learn them in. Hence, this is one of the many life skills and career skills that we can offer outside of the classroom. Through our own experience and professional development, we can apply Sanford’s (1962) Theory of Challenge and Support to provide a template for engaging in these conversations with student groups. Walking them through their trip or event and asking “what would you do if…” can not only develop their critical thinking skills, but also give them a framework for risk analysis and crisis response. We can only do that when we ourselves have enough experience to propose reasonable “what if” questions and provide examples of possible responses. However, we do not have to develop these skills in isolation. As suggested above, reaching out to colleagues in campus safety, emergency management, or risk management offices can be a helpful resource in developing training processes for student groups.

Understand the Multiple Aspects of Clear Communication During Crisis

If an emergency occurs during a trip, there are two aspects to managing the emergency. The first is the actual actions of those on the trip. The other is the actions that are occurring back on campus. One of those actions is communications about the crisis to the relevant stakeholders. For instance, if a residence hall director learns that a residential student has been significantly injured on a white water rafting trip, they will need to notify the residence life staff and probably the Dean of Students. These initial communications should activate the institution’s emergency response team.  Somewhere along the way communication will need to also be made to risk management, emergency management, university communications, and others in university administration. Someone may even need to contact the family or friends of the injured student. Meanwhile, the persons on the trip will need to manage the immediate needs of bridging the student to appropriate medical care, while also ensuring the continued safety of all others.

While there may be a set plan for this communication pathway, flexibility is required, lessons from prior incidents are useful, and collegial relationships are helpful in tending to the work of emergency management. If a step in the communication process is missed, relying on flexibility, prior lessons, and solid relationships can help keep the problems from compounding.  It is important to have a clear written communications plan in place from the lowest to the 

highest level that has redundant pathways in case someone is out of town or misses a call. Everyone involved with planning or managing the trip should have access to the communications plan. 

After the initial response to the incident, the other actions that should occur on campus are those aimed at meeting the needs of anyone within the campus community that is impacted by the crisis. For instance, at Miami University, a student died in a fatal crash after a football game. This student death impacted the communities he was a part of, which included commuter students, his wife who was also a student, and the larger university community. The necessary response included the counseling staff providing support to the various populations and coordinating support services for those who were connected to the student. However, if the counseling staff was never notified of the incident, how could they support students? This highlights why communication is so critical to the campus response, even for an off campus crisis.

It is often helpful to have someone not involved with responding to the crisis who can assess the “secondary effects” of the event. Many experienced student affairs professionals can do this almost instinctually, however, newer professionals or graduate students who find themselves thrust into the role, may need assistance with foreseeing the larger scale impact. Developing processes and procedures for how to engage colleagues to address and support staff with less direct experience helps to mitigate additional risks along the way. When put into action, these protocols can disrupt those moments of tranquility on your porch, but they also one to support an effective response during an otherwise relaxing day at home.

Now back to that Saturday in April. You are on your porch and your graduate assistant is asking you about the explosion near the theater. You consult your copy of the trip itinerary and realize that you have three activities that evening at different locations that are a reasonable distance away from the theater. A check of the news and your phone’s map application shows that all the activities are about two miles from the location of the possible explosion. You and your graduate assistant decide to cancel the theater portion of the trip and ask the students to return to the hotel after this current event. The grad puts out a message over the group messaging app that all of your students downloaded before they left specifically for trip communication. You sit at home on your porch and watch as the acknowledgements of the message roll in (because you have it downloaded too). You also add to the chat that students may want to check in with the friends and family as this is making national news. You then, adhering to the communications plan, send a text message to your supervisor and the campus emergency manager letting them know that your folks are two miles from the troubled area and they are safe and aware of it. You note the time so you can check the news again in an hour. Now back to your book. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. After reviewing your existing campus resources and protocols, what additional resources or trainings can you develop to support managing risk with campus activities? 
  2. What steps can you take to begin conversations with colleagues or students about issues of risk management when planning activities or trips?
  3. What insight have you gained that you’ll use in your professional career moving forward?

Author Bios

John Summerlot is Director of Veterans Support Services at Indiana University and serves on the Incident Management Team. He holds an adjunct position teaching emergency management and search and rescue. His sixteen years in higher education include work in residence life and emergency management. His consulting and research include on and off campus emergency procedures, missing students, and emergency preparedness training. John holds an Associate Emergency Manager certification from the International Association of Emergency Managers, a Military Emergency Management Specialist rating in the Indiana Guard Reserve, and a BA and MS from Mississippi State University.

Benjamin Williams is an Associate Program Director of the Student Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is an active volunteer with the Association of College Unions International and ACPA & NASPA.  His work experience in higher education has been primarily in residence life, commuter services, college unions, and student activities. His research interests focus on risk management in student affairs, bisexual, gay, and transgender men’s experience of sexual violence, and staff development.  Benjamin holds a BA in Sociology from Georgia State University and an MS in Student Affairs in Higher Education from Miami University. 


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