College students more likely to report campus threats if 'connected' to school—UF study

Posted June 7, 2010

GAINESVILLE, FL—College students who witness a threat of violence on their campus are more likely to report the incident if they feel connected to their school and trust campus police and administrators, according to a University of Florida study.

Michael Sulkowski in front of Century Tower on the UF campus. The dissertation study by Michael Sulkowski, a doctoral student in school psychology at UF’s College of Education, queried 820 UF undergraduates.

In his survey, Sulkowski (pictured, right, in front of Century Tower on the UF campus) found that students who felt connected to the campus environment and had well-established peer relationships were more likely to report threats. Those who believed police would respond effectively, and not interrogate the caller, were more likely to report an incident.

Students with a history of delinquency—such as selling illegal drugs, stealing or physical aggression–were less likely to report threats or trust campus authority figures.

For most respondents, fear of negative peer evaluation had no bearing on whether or not they would report a threat.

“The higher degree of maturity in college students might partially account for this,” Sulkowski said. “There are pretty strong social pressures against peer-reporting in adolescence, yet these pressures may not be as influential on college students. Norms may exist in college communities that condone or actually encourage threat reporting.”

In more than 80 percent of school shootings, at least one other person knows in advance of the planned attack, according to a 2002 federal report by the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education. Sulkowski said it is often difficult to distinguish between legitimate and passing threats. Students and faculty must pay close attention to the actual content of a perceived threat. For example, if a threat contains specific details, such as when and where the threat would be carried out, the type of weapon to be used and the identity of specific victims, this information should definitely be reported.     

Sulkowski cautions against aggressively stereotyping or profiling students since there is no surefire profile of someone on the verge of committing mass violence. It’s important, he said, for schools to remove barriers to threat-reporting and receiving mental health treatment, while respecting the diversity of the student body.

“Adjusting to college is a challenge for all students and many will display signs of distress. For some, though, it can be a particularly poignant experience adjusting to a new lifestyle or culture,” he says.

At UF, Sulkowski found students’ trust in the campus support system, including police and faculty, to be relatively high, despite recent high-profile incidents such the police tasering of Andrew Meyer in 2007. His study, though, was conducted prior to the controversial March 2 university police shooting of graduate student Kofi Adu-Brempong. 

Most students surveyed said they would directly contact the University Police Department to report a crime. Students also were willing to report incidents through UF’s new anonymous reporting system, Silent Witness, which allows people who witness a disruptive behavior on campus to report it anonymously on the UPD website.

Sulkowski said university police, administrators and counselors do more behind the scenes than students realize to protect students and assist those with social or emotional problems. UF police officers train regularly for a variety of threats, including a gunman on campus, and have comprehensive response plans. The conflicts that are resolved successfully often don’t make the news because of student privacy laws and regulations.

“Overall, college campuses are safe. In fact, research indicates that they are safer than their surrounding communities,” Sulkowski said.  “You only hear when something goes wrong. You don’t hear about a counselor talking a student down from a suicide attempt or when campus police intervene with a student who is planning something violent.” 

His findings stress the importance for colleges to focus on increasing student connectedness and trust in the institution.

“When people feel as if they are members of the university community, they are going to take measures to preserve it.”


     Source: Michael Sulkowski, 716-472-5836,
     Writer: Jennifer Tormo, writing intern, UF College of Education news & communications
     Media contact: Larry Lansford, director, UF College of Education news & communication, 352-273-4137;