Campus Security Across the U.S. Needs More Transparency

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This week a commission investigating the campus shootings that killed more than 30 people in April 2007 at Virginia Tech released an addendum updating an earlier report to the state's governor.  The findings reported in the 210-page document are disturbing. In the three hours between the initial killing by Seung-Hui Cho of two students in a dorm and his massacre of 30 more people in a classroom building, campus administrators made several errors that resulted in the additional fatalies.

The initial report focused on the campus's failure to recognize the danger posed by Cho's mental illness.  The new report looks at the response of administrators and campus security to the campus emergency, as well as state and federal laws that allowed a mentally ill person who posed a danger to himself and others to purchase firearms.  Among the report's findings are:

  • "Cho was not legally authorized to purchase his guns but was easily able to do so," even though under federal law he was disqualified from purchasing firearms; Virginia law is less clear. Federal law also prohibited him from purchasing ammunition; Virginia law offered no such restrictions.
  • "Virginia universities and colleges do not seem to be adequately versed in what they can do about banning guns on campus under existing interpretations of state laws."
  • The probability was very low that a double-murder on campus would be followed by a massacre; the only campus mass murder in the U.S. in the preceding 40 years was the sniper attack from a tower at the University of Texas. That said, the report's authors write that "the VTPD had the probabilities correct, but needed to consider the low-probability side as well as the most likely situation."  Furthermore, "The police did not tell the Policy Group that there was a chance the gunman was loose on campus or advise the university of any immediate action that should be taken such as canceling classes or closing the university. Also, the police did not give any direction as to an emergency message to be sent to the students."
  • Most police chiefs consulted by the new report's authors agreed that locking down a campus of 35,000 people is not feasible.
  • At least two administrators informed family members about the shooting before alerting faculty, students, and staff on campus.
  • After he first heard about the shootings, the chief of the Virginia Tech police department was unable to reach the executive vice president's office for 17 minutes.
  • The office of the university president was locked down 48 minutes before the massacre in the classroom building occurred; the classroom building in question was not locked down.
  • One of the students shot in the dorm survived for several hours following the shooting, but her family was not notified of her injuries until after she died.
  • Administrators cancelled the collection of campus trash 21 minutes before students and faculty were warned about a gunman on campus.

On the possibility of lockdowns, from the report:

A building can be locked down in the sense of locking the exterior doors, barring anyone from coming or going. Elementary schools practice that regularly, and so do some intermediate and high schools. At least some schools in Blacksburg were locked down for a while after the first shootings. Usually, a lockdown also implies locking individual classrooms. Virginia Tech does not have locks on the inside of classroom doors, as is the case for most universities and many high schools.

A message could theoretically be sent to all buildings on campus to lock their doors, but there was no efficient way to do this at Virginia Tech. It would have required calls or e-mails to individuals who had the ability to lock the doors for at least 131 buildings or sending people on foot to each building.

I am not an expert in campus security, but I do know from working on a campus that most students and faculty have phones with text messaging enabled.  The university could have made better use of a subscription service that allows it to send blasts to all cell phone users, or even begun text-messaging those who had opted in to such messages.  As it was, the emergency alert system was in the midst of a major upgrade that April.  However—and this is really startling—even if the messaging system had been fully enabled, campus police did not have direct access to it; they would have had to request that an emergency alert message be sent from University Relations or the campus's policy group that handles campus emergencies.  Regardless, if a message had been sent, word would have spread from student to student like wildfire.  While this opens the possibility for panic, it also may have inspired some students and faculty to either not venture onto campus that morning or to bar the entrances to their classrooms and dorms.

Many people are calling for the resignation or firing of Virginia Tech's president Charles W. Steger, as well as for the removal of those who should have been accountable for alerting the students, faculty, and staff to the presence of a gunman on campus.  Writes Blue Virginia,

This is unacceptable; it's time for somebody to be held accountable for the fact that immediate notification of the threat posed by a murderer on the lose was not provided to Virginia Tech students, staff, etc. on that horrible day in April 2007. If it had been - and also if Cho's "long list of frightening writings and aberrant behaviors" had been looked into and dealt with aggressively - perhaps this wouldn't have been the "deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history?"

If you or someone you know or love works on a college campus—and particularly a campus in or near a state with lax gun-purchasing laws—the new report should be required reading.  If your campus does not already have regulations about guns on university property, ask why.  And definitely read this post by Historiann, who points out that women are too often left out of these discussions:

Well–what do actual women students, faculty and staff at Baa Ram U. think?  Does the reporter bother to talk to any actual XX chromosome people?   Not according to the version of the story published in the Post.  No, all of the “student leaders” quoted in the story are men, as are all of the faculty members in the story and the one member of the Board quoted here.  But, we’re supposed to trust the “student leader” who said, “I’ve had many say how it makes women feel safer on campus, knowing they can conceal and carry.”  (”Many say?”  Did this guy even talk to a single woman?  Or is he quoting just more men who claim that more guns make women feel so much safer?)

The report also offers another opportunity for any university's administrators, faculty, staff, students, and the surrounding community to reopen conversations about violence, safety, and security on campus.  This conversation needs to include protection of students in several contexts.  For example, the University of California at Berkeley is investigating the actions of law enforcement against student protestors.  As you can see at 38:25 in this video from Democracy Now, officers beat students with batons; there are reports of several observers and protesters with broken bones.

Virginia Tech and UC campuses aren't the only ones who need to reexamine the extent of violence on their campuses.  Check out this article by Elizabeth Manapsal highlighting the history of murder and violence in the Ivy League.  Remember the September murder of Yale student Annie Le?

Even more puzzling and frightening, many universities seem to be actively engaged in covering up the level of violence, and particularly sexual assault, on campus and within the university communites. The Center for Public Integrity released a report earlier this week showing the following:

  • "Many victims don’t report at all, and those who do come forward can encounter secret disciplinary proceedings, closed-mouthed school administrations, and off-the-record negotiations. At times, school policies and practices can lead students to drop complaints, or submit to gag orders — a practice deemed illegal."
  • "Students reporting sexual assault on campus routinely say they face a host of institutional barriers in pursuing the on-campus remedies meant to keep colleges and universities safe. The result, say experts, is a widespread feeling that justice isn’t being served, and may not even be worth pursuing. Crisis counselors described barriers as overt as a dean expressing disbelief; lawyers pointed out failures as subtle as an institution neglecting to provide access to a professional victim’s advocate to guide students through an intimidating process."
  • "Limitations and loopholes in the federal mandatory campus crime reporting law, known as the Clery Act, are causing systematic problems in documenting the numbers of campus-related sexual assaults, the Center found. The most troubling loopholes involve broadly applied reporting exemptions for counselors supposedly covered by confidentiality protections."

Your thoughts?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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