Virginia Tech Tragedy Prompts Scrutiny of University Campus Security
BLACKSBURG, Va. — The American higher educational community and the nation as a whole received a tragic wake-up call April 16 when 23-year-old Virginia Tech student Cho Seung-hui shot and killed 32 people and wounded many others in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The massacre began just after 7 a.m. when Cho shot a female and male resident at a dormitory. Approximately two hours later, he went to an engineering complex one-half mile away and shot 30 more students and teachers before turning the gun on himself.
The massacre has prompted officials across the nation to review the general state of campus safety and security. In light of the fact that prior to his attack, the gunman exhibited disturbing behavior and had received psychiatric treatment, how colleges and universities handle individuals with mental health issues is receiving particular scrutiny.
Cho was a loner who had been accused of stalking two female students. His writings depicting violence also prompted professors to be concerned about his mental stability. Two years before his attack, Cho had been admitted to a psychiatric institution because it had been determined he was suicidal.
The other issue receiving significant attention is the way colleges and universities notify students, faculty and staff during emergencies. Virginia Tech students complained that when the April 16 massacre occurred, there were no public-address announcements or other warnings on campus after the initial burst of gunfire. The first notice they received from the school was an E-mail more than two hours into the incident.
College Mental Health Services Struggling
In response to the tragedy, the U.S. Senate committee on Governmental Affairs called on several college administrators, campus public safety officials and mental health counselors to testify about the security of higher education campuses and what can be done to make them more secure.
Two of the panelists said they had serious concerns regarding the state of mental health services on college campuses. “The quantity and quality of evaluative services are spotty at best,” said Irwin Redlener, M.D., who is the director for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “Few schools or colleges have the consistent ability to intervene effectively, even if highly dangerous individuals are identified. There are serious and pervasive gaps in our knowledge about best practices to most effectively screen for disorders that can result in the most egregious consequences in terms of violence against oneself or others. Even if suspicions are appropriately aroused, access to reliable data supporting the most effective interventions remains a major challenge.”
According to Russ Federman, Ph.D., director of counseling and psychological services for the Department of Student Health at the University of Virginia, when a student become less functional, it is usually noticed by others. “In most instances, faculty, deans and/or administrators, in addition to university mental health professionals, are notified and appropriate attention and limits are brought to bear upon the individual.” Still, Federman says the number of students per each clinical staff member is increasing, leading to overworked staff.
He also stressed that funding of university counseling centers is probably their biggest challenge and that 42 percent of colleges don’t have on-campus psychiatric resources.
More Campus Security Funding Needed
International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) President Steven Healy testified that campus law enforcement needs greater federal, state and local support and a dedicated funding stream. “Campus public safety agencies are not explicitly recognized as potential recipients of federal funds administered by the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] or Justice Department. This presents a major challenge in many states when decisions are made about the allocation of formula grant funds.”
Healy stated campuses require a layered approach to security, beginning with highly trained campus police officers, appropriate implementation of security technology and crime prevention through environmental design. Mass emergency notification systems are also extremely important. “These systems must be capable of reaching our community members using several methodologies, including landline phones, cellular phones, text messaging and E-mail,” he stated.
Other Investigations Into Massacre Taking Place
In addition to hearings at the federal level, the state of Virginia has launched an investigation into the Virginia Tech shootings. Gov. Timothy Kaine has called for a “minute by minute” accounting of Cho’s killing spree and his whereabouts throughout the morning. Expected to take 60-90 days to complete, the inquiry will also evaluate police procedures and response to the incident.
Virginia Tech is also appointing its own investigation team to examine campus police and university policymaker response. The school president’s decision not to lock the campus down after the initial double homicide is expected to be a key part of the inquiry.
Chief of Virginia Tech Police Wendell Flinchum maintains his staff’s response to the shooting was appropriate, given initial indications that the dorm murders were domestic in nature. According to Flinchum, officers were questioning a person of interest at the same time Cho began his rampage at Norris Hall across campus.
Amended FERPA Legislation to Be Introduced in Congress
PITTSBURGH — As a result of the Virginia Tech massacre, legislation to revise the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 is being introduced by Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA). FERPA was designed to protect the confidentiality of student records and define under what circumstances parents and other interested parties can have access to student information.
Many college and university administrators, however, believe that new federal legislation is needed to eliminate constraints regarding informing and engaging parents of young adults who pose a major threat to themselves or others.
According to Murphy, FERPA is “vague and left to various interpretations. There are many examples where information was not released to parents or guardians regarding a student’s mental health, which led to miscommunications and withholding of vital information that could have prevented suicides, assaults and other crimes.” Many believe that this law leaves institutions vulnerable to lawsuits.
The bill being proposed by Murphy specifies when there is a risk or danger in the case of a suicide, homicide or threats of assault. “Schools can reveal information to parents if a licensed mental health professional reviews the issues and consults with school personnel and signs off saying, ‘Yes, I think this is a case where there is some human endangerment,’” says Murphy. Additionally, the healthcare professional must determine if telling the student’s parents will be helpful.
This proposed legislation, however, does not affect the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which bans the release of records to parents in the absence of a signed waiver by the student. According to Murphy, Congress will also be looking at HIPAA to eliminate any barriers.
Campuses Concerned About Virgina Tech Copycats
LOS ANGELES — Individual campuses are also taking extra precautions to ward off any Virginia Tech copycat attacks. “We’re on a heightened state of alert,” says Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Chief of Police Glenn Miller. “That will go on until the end of the semester.”
Miller says his campus has extensive emergency operations plans to deal with active shooters, “But anytime you have an incident like this, you sit back and look at what went right, what went wrong and what do we have to take another look at.”
The Virginia Tech massacre was also a wake-up call for K-12 campuses, which have had more experience with mass shootings. “I don’t think we’ll see strategic changes at the K-12 level,” says Dick Caster, executive director for the National Association of School Resource Officers. “We will continue to do lockdowns and other things. Very definitely, it will heighten concern.”
Prior to the Virginia Tech shootings, California State University, Fresno (CSUF) was already investigating ways it could supplement its six current emergency alert systems. “We’ve already interviewed several vendors regarding mass notification using texting, where we can blast out messages to 10,000-20,000 people at a time,” says CSUF Chief of Police David Huerta.
More than anything, however, the Virginia Tech tragedy has served as a reminder for the education community as a whole. “Right when you think it’s not going to happen, it happens,” says Huerta. “You have to believe that you might be next. You don’t want to scare people, but you have to plan for what you hope never happens.”
One issue that concerns Miller the most is the lack of intelligence sharing with nonsworn security departments at other schools. He believes security departments must be provided meaningful and timely information so they can respond appropriately.
Additionally, Miller warns against a knee-jerk reaction, which he fears might happen with all of the legislation being considered. “Let’s think things through, do them methodically, and do the right thing.”
Robin Hattersley Gray is executive editor of Campus Safety magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the unabridged version of this article, please refer to the May/June 2007 issue of Campus Safety magazine. To subscribe, go to https://secure2.bobitweb.com/campussafetymagazine/subscribe/.