After One Campus Is Attacked, the Others Adapt
The New York Times MOTOKO RICH Reports
Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges sent alerts to students and faculty members this past weekend informing them that a posting on social media had threatened violence at an unspecified Philadelphia-area college or university, just days after the killings at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
On Tuesday, after a report of a man brandishing a handgun on the campus of Community College of Philadelphia, the police immediately sent SWAT teams to search buildings room by room. As helicopters hovered, students and faculty were put on lockdown for several hours.
While the Oregon shootings have created fresh worries, for most colleges and universities mass shootings are now on the list of hazards — from fires and bombings to natural disasters like earthquakes in the West and tornadoes in the South — for which they must prepare.
Ever since the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech in 2007, colleges have been strengthening their security measures. About two-thirds of four-year colleges or universities with more than 2,500 students have dedicated armed officers on campus, according to the Department of Justice. But many rural or small campuses cannot afford a full-time police force and rely on relationships with the local police.
Colleges have also beefed up high-tech communications systems to send emergency instructions to students and staff members, and added features like automatic locking mechanisms for dormitory and classroom doors. Even with such preparations, things can go awry; at Umpqua last week, some faculty members and students reported to the college that they had not received any emergency notifications at all.
Across the country, security officers fret that the most difficult part of preparing for — and trying to prevent — a mass shooting is how idiosyncratic it can be. And so an increasing number of training programs advise students to evaluate their own options to run, hide or fight.
“Every time something happens, you kind of reflect back and say, ‘What did we know, what could we have known, were there any signs, and what can we hope to learn from those experiences?’ ” said Kevin Kruger, president of Naspa-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, an organization with about 16,000 members on campuses across the country.
“Is there something that’s transferable to another situation?” he added. “Generally we find that there’s not. There’s not a single predictive event or series of events that would have helped all of us.”
In schools as well as colleges, there is a sense of high alert. In Portland, Ore., on Tuesday a local businesswoman saw a young man walking through the neighborhood with what appeared to be a gun, and notified the police and the principal of a nearby high school, which went into immediate lockdown. Once the police found the young man, it turned out he had an air gun, and the lockdown was lifted. “Unfortunately we’re learning from a very sad situation,” said Christine Miles, spokeswoman for the Portland school district. “But it takes a community to watch out for one another.”
Security plans have changed over time as officials examine the details of each new episode. After the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, for example, security experts reconsidered their advice that students hide in one place during a shooting. During that 1999 tragedy, several students hunkered in the library instead of escaping out a back door and were ultimately killed.
At West Virginia University, a campus of about 30,000 students, for example, regular training programs specifically describe the decisions students or staff members might have to make if someone shows up on campus with a gun.
“Obviously if you get the chance to flee, that’s the first option,” said Bob Roberts, chief of the university’s police force of 56 armed officers. “We would prefer people to get out of those situations. If you can’t, barricade yourself in, and the bottom line is you have to make a decision. If you’re in a situation where you’re going to possibly lose your life you’re going to have to make a decision of whether you’re going to fight, and if you are going to fight, you need to fight to the end.”
Training videos offer suggestions like throwing potted plants or books, or getting a group of people to rush the gunman. Chief Roberts said that after the Virginia Tech shootings, the campus police force added long rifles, shotguns and automatic rifles to its arsenal and that officers specifically run exercises on how to handle a gunman on campus.
One of the biggest challenges for colleges is how open their grounds tend to be. “There’s very few campuses that have walls and fences where they can control who comes and goes,” said William F. Taylor, chief of police at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Tex., and the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.
And unlike in a fire or tornado, where officials can send students to designated safe spots, “it’s totally contingent on where you are” on campus when a shooting begins, said Tom King, director of campus safety for Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges in neighboring suburbs of Philadelphia.
At Community College of Philadelphia on Tuesday, the city’s police commissioner, Charles H. Ramsey, said the episode stemmed from a dispute between two men and apparently had nothing to do with the Oregon shooting or the threats that have circulated.
Many colleges have bought sophisticated communications systems that allow them to send multiple messages to every member of the campus community by text, email and phone calls.
In addition to students and staff members, some systems will send messages to parents as well. “If parents hear that there is an incident, there is nothing worse than not being able to get in touch with your student,” said Imad Mouline, chief technology officer at Everbridge, an emergency communications company that has about 150 clients at colleges around the country.
Mr. Mouline said an increasing number of colleges were asking for the ability to tailor messages depending on where students are on campus, using tracking software based on where students or staff check in to university wireless networks. “So, for example, I might send a slightly different message to the students who are in the building where I know the active shooter is,” Mr. Mouline said, “versus the students who are a mile away.”
Ron Paradis, a spokesman for Umpqua, said the college had heard that its system “didn’t work perfectly” last week during the shootings, but had not yet conducted an investigation.
At the University of New Haven, a campus of about 4,000 students in West Haven, Conn., Ronald M. Quagliani, associate vice president for public safety, said students and staff members can download the EmergenSee App onto their phones so that if they are stuck in a location but cannot make a call, the app will activate their microphones and video cameras and send location coordinates to security officers.
In contrast with elementary and high schools, where lockdown drills have become increasingly common, it is difficult for colleges to conduct campuswide drills, officials say, with students on varying schedules and in many cases, commuting from off site.
At Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C., Gary M. Green, the president, said the college’s police force regularly conducts training and drills with faculty and staff members, but not with students. But instructions for what to do in the case of an active shooting are posted in every classroom: lock doors, turn off lights, close blinds, block windows, turn off computer monitors, take cover.
Other measures that might work in more contained situations, like metal detectors, are impractical in college settings, security officials say, where there are so many buildings.
“It would be awfully expensive,” said Chief Roberts at West Virginia University. “It’s kind of a quandary, too, when you start thinking about educational facilities. What kind of environment do we want our young people going to school in? We don’t want to replicate a prison in a college campus, I don’t think.”