Orlando 2016 Shooting

By Cynthia H. Love, Ed.D.

…studies revealed that the effects from acts of (human engineered) terrorism on mental health affected a higher percentage of people (than that recorded for natural or accidental disasters and that the effects were more enduring than the negative psychological outcomes reported in previous studies for natural or accidental disaster…from 18 months to three years. [1]

We are only a few days past what we will now always remember as the Orlando Massacre at Pulse, a popular nightspot for young adults.   On Sunday, June 12, 2016, a lone assassin, targeted the predominately LatinX (LGBTQ , gender queer and fluid) crowd during Latin Night at the club, leaving 49 dead, including 7 Valencia Community College students.  53 people were injured and five remain in critical condition at the time of this post.  Police killed the assassin at the scene. 

As student affairs professionals, it is important to understand and prepare for the short-term and longer-term impact of this human-engineered terrorism on students who are on campus this summer as well as those who return in the fall.  It is also very important to recognize the impact on each one of us.  How can we create and sustain the resiliency we need to survive and thrive in the midst of what feels like chaos? Sandy Shugart, President of Valencia, gave some good advice to his campus community yesterday:

Do not fill every moment with media flurry.  Take time to process what happened.  Come to school here at Valencia ready to hug and support others. Do not attack Muslim classmates and staff simply because the killer was of the same religion.  Be sure to embrace them too; they didn’t cause this.[2]

I want to share some additional research, thoughts and recommendations that may help you support students and your own well-being.  In addition, ACPA Commissions, Coalitions, Communities of Practice, Networks, State Chapters, Presidential Task Forces, Assembly and Governing Board are posting to a site that we have established for your use and support.  Visit that site area here. >>

We want to invite you to share your reflections, ideas and recommendations for resources with colleagues around the world.  (Fill out this form to submit your article!  >>)

A friend sent me a good recommendation this morning.

One of the most effective initiatives in the world in turning back young men from joining terrorist cells is Germany’s Hayat programme, which works with relatives, friends, teachers, and employers in mentoring those deemed vulnerable to the appeal of violent extremism.  The most successful programmes are those that are least visibly associated with government and law-enforcement authorities; those developed in close consultation with local communities; and, above all, those that are most practical and specific, relying primarily on individual interventions. Those young men (and occasionally women) who are susceptible to extremism’s appeal respond best to those they trust — people who can help them step back from violence in a way that does not cause them to lose face.[3]

The Orlando assassin, attended Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Florida and graduated in 2006 with a degree in criminal justice.  While enrolled, his anti-gay rhetoric was severe enough to concern other students and faculty members.

Upon graduation, he went to work for a national security firm.  He was interviewed in 2012 and 2014 by US authorities for potential connections to a known terrorist leader, but there was not enough evidence to "constitute a substantive threat" at that time.  It is important to reflect on the assassin's trajectory from bias to murder.

Perhaps the Hayat programme could have helped him or an intensive self-actualization program like The Experience developed by Dr. Rob Eichberg.  Many LGBT people credit Dr. Eichberg’s text “Coming Out is an Act of Love” with their break through into living their lives with full integrity.

We will never know what the assassin needed, but we can know about the resources that are available to offer.  It is important to think about the questions we need to answer in order to develop or choose resources.

Here are some of the questions I have been asking myself since Sunday’s tragedy:

How are we helping students and colleagues deal with the impact of Orlando?  What plans are we making for students who will return to campus after break?  Research suggests that we should plan four to six months (minimum).

Cardenas et al. [13] examined the effects of 9/11 terrorist attacks on a Midwestern university population 600 miles from New York City. Two years after the attacks, 76.5 percent of the study participants reported experiencing PTSD criteria of fear, helplessness, and horror four to six months after the event.[4]

How can we improve our skills, knowledge and abilities, i.e., competencies in recognizing and effectively supporting students experiencing short and long-term effects of human and natural disasters? 

How can we help them increase resiliency and reduce post-traumatic stress?

How can we improve early diagnosis and intervention for those students who are most fragile and susceptible to recruitment to dangerous or destructive activities? 

We will never detect or stop everyone who is on a path to destruction, but I hope we can improve our practices and policies and prevent more pain in the future.

How can we improve institutional performance in treating students, faculty and staff equitably and ethically?   

Campuses must develop cultures of assessment in which “assessment is not an activity, but a state of mind,” according to Dr. Gavin Henning, President of CAS and Past President of ACPA.  If you have not seen Henning’s presentation about assessing cultures of assessment, take a moment now to review.

The majority of US based colleges and universities do not use a system-wide assessment or benchmarking system to measure diversity and inclusion metrics, such as the Global Diversity and Inclusion Benchmarking Project.[5] (GDIB)

Without this type of assessment tool, we cannot say with confidence that we know the “who, what, where, when and how” students and employees are being “othered.”  ACPA has adapted the GDIB assessment to higher education and it is provided at no charge.

How we can improve our ways of affirming the value and interconnectedness of every person so individuals do not isolate from one another, exclude one another and degrade one another?   We can be the catalysts and builders of cultures of advocacy rather than adversity and avoidance.

A culture of advocacy exists:

When those without recognition and agency express their views and concerns non-violently, access information and services without impediment, successfully promote their rights and responsibilities, and freely explore options and choices about their present and future without despair.

There are eight connecting behaviors that are critically important in the development and sustainability of cultures of advocacy—empathy, emotional validation, consideration, civility, suspension of judgment, acknowledgement of what is true, collaboration on reconciling opportunities and iteration.[6]

Additional Recommendations

We can benefit from research and scholarship in Public Health as well as student learning and development theories to inform intervention practices.  Dr. Vasti Torres, ACPA Senior Scholar, recommends that we read current research outside our field as well as within.[7]

For example, in public health theory, researchers recommend that interventionists develop a comprehensive working knowledge of the community clusters of identities before disasters occur.  Their focus is on those who are most vulnerable in a disaster. 

They recommend that interventionists need to know the nature of current infrastructure of services and support (strengths and weaknesses) including communications, transportation, “drop in” locations, etc. as well as the range of qualified behavioral health responders in the area (e.g., clergy, emergency workers, mental health workers). In short, they recommend a comprehensive community wide-assessment focused on disaster response.

This assessment should include measuring resilience and documenting the anticipated influences of significant psychological impacts on all residents and for special groups within the community.  You can view one type of scale here.  https://www.resiliencescale.com/your-resilience/for-college-students/

Next, the campus intervention teams must identify and apply brief psychological and/or behavioral interventions to reduce traumatic stress reactions.[8]

Student learning and development theorists focus on student sense of belonging as an essential part of resilience.[9]  People do not feel that they belong in places where leaders struggle to accommodate their most basic needs—health care, housing and restrooms.  We are struggling with these basic provisions for transgender students on many of our campuses. 

Some campuses have LGBT centers (250 to date).  The majority do not.[10] These are very important gathering spaces for LGBT students and allies for support as well as guidance.  When they do not exist, it is incumbent on the rest of us to build these support structures on campuses and communicate availability in ways that do not threaten privacy.

Longer term, we must improve institutional diversity and inclusion strategies to ensure that the most vulnerable people on our campuses are not also the most overlooked, under represented, isolated or harassed. 

Over the last 50 years, the tragedies that have taken place in Ferguson, Garissa University in Kenya, Virginia Tech, Kent State, Columbine, Sandy Hook and more have added to our opportunities to understand more deeply our deeply engrained and socially sanctioned isms and phobias.  The Orlando Massacre has confirmed, “We are not there yet.”[11]

We understand what happens when assault weapons are readily available when a person or persons are ready to kill.  And, our understanding has not led to action in ways that eradicate these weapons nor has it created social systems that readily defuse hatred, systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamaphobia and more. 

I am particularly moved this week by the challenge Arminio, Torres and Pope express in their text, Why Aren't We There Yet? Taking Personal Responsibility for Creating an Inclusive Campus.

In closing, I share it with you for reflection:

In what ways have I initiated a dialogue that promoted human dignity, equality and community that serves to move my institution to be truly inclusive?

 --J. Arminio, V. Torres & R. Pope 2012

ACPA expresses appreciation to B. Selzler & D. Grandbois, University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University, USA for citations of their research and recommendations on best practices for psychological support of communities after a disaster.



[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/valencia-college-orlando-shooting_us_5761b4a4e4b09c926cfe0601

[3] http://www.jordantimes.com/opinion/gareth-evans/combating-terrorist-recruitment


[5] www.diversitycollegium.com

[6] Cindi Love, “Creating Cultures of Advocacy” 37th Annual Stetson University College of Law Higher Education Law Conference 2016

[7] [7]http://www.myacpa.org/blogs/senior-scholar-blog/justifying-student-affairs-programming-what%E2%80%99s-behind-academic-curtain

[8] http://www.samhsa.gov/nctic/trauma-interventions

[9] https://www.routledge.com/College-Students-Sense-of-Belonging-A-Key-to-Educational-Success-for/Strayhorn/p/book/9780415895040

[10] http://chronicle.com/article/To-Reassure-Nervous-Students/236803

[11] https://www.amazon.com/Why-Arent-There-Yet-Responsibility/dp/1579224660?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0