Colleges Revisit Their Security Plans
College officials nationwide reacted quickly to the tragedy at Virginia Tech this week, refreshing their own security plans, asking questions about what procedures to ramp up, and talking about new technologies.
As massacre investigators piece together what transpired as well as how and when those on campus were informed, some outside critics as well as Virginia Tech students argue that the university did not act fast enough in informing students of a violent crime on campus, particularly about the first round of shootings. Others are calling for better technology, whether text-messaging systems or audible alerts.
Ross Pinkett, a junior from Williamsburg, Va., said friends from the West Ambler Johnston dormitory, the site of the first shootings, were "just driving around" like nothing was wrong and "clearly not on lockdown" shortly after the shooting there.
"I felt angry yesterday," he said on Tuesday. "That there was a shooting on campus and nobody took more dramatic measures to shut down our school. It's pretty incomprehensible."
University President Charles Steger responded to similar lines of questioning, saying, "We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur."
And campus law enforcement authorities around the country said such accusations were a bit premature.
"I think it's easy to go back and do 20-20 hindsight on the situation," says Chief Robert Dahlstrom, chief of police at the University of TexasAustin. "I can guarantee you this, and I don't know anybody there, that police department handled it in the best way they could with the resources they had at the time."
The ongoing debate for college public safety officers is how to maintain the openness and intellectual vibrancy of a college campus while preserving high security standards. That of course depends largely on how big a school is and its location, whether urban or rural.
Most large state schools and private schools have full-service police departments of highly trained officers; smaller colleges may rely in part on local police authorities and outside security guards.
"These campuses that we're talking about are really analogous to cities," says Sue Riseling, chief of police at the University of WisconsinMadison and vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Take her university, for example. There are 124 members in her department who have 330 buildings to monitor (some the size of a big city block with multiple entrances and exits); the university has a daytime population of roughly 65,000.
Their size has also led universities to be up to date on many of the most advanced emergency scenarios. Following the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999, colleges nationwide began to train on an "active shooter" protocol. Local officials are trained to respond to a gunman on campus instead of waiting for a SWAT team to come to their aid.
"After Columbine, we as a profession realized that we can't establish a perimeter and wait for SWAT," Riseling says. "SWAT takes a long time to respond. You have to form a team of street officers and the first group that responds begins to move into the building where the shooter is." Columbine serves as the textbook example of how to respond to a crisis situation with a gunman.