On July 4th, I posted a comment on the blog of Zach Crizer, the news editor of Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times, questioning his assertion that Tech is in the forefront of campus safety. Mr. Crizer’s blog, “How Much is Enough Campus Security?” which he asserted that Virginia Tech pioneered the text-message alert system.
I was struck by Crizer’s claim that “colleges are simply finding ways to alert students to a threat, which was the major system question in the wake of April 16.” I would argue that the major “system question” on April 16, 2007, was not the way to alert the faculty, staff, and students, but why no one activated the security system Tech had in place—immediately after the double homicide in the dormitory?
No matter how good a system is, it is only as good as the people in control of it. Mr. Crizer responded to me asking me to write a guest blog for him comparing Virginia Tech to SUNY-Oneonta. He also expressed interest in details of what Virginia Tech security lacks. The following is his email to me:
Hi Mr. Cariens,
I’m Zach Crizer, the News Editor of the Collegiate Times and also the news blogger. I wanted to know if you would like to write a guest blog post for my blog detailing some aspects of SUNY-Oneonta’s security measures that Virginia Tech lacks.
Clearly there are some new ideas there that Tech has not yet employed, and if you would elaborate on some of your conversations with the officials you spoke to that would add to it. I would write a blog post to go with it comparing the two from Virginia Tech’s perspective, taking into account the size differential of the schools.
Let me know if you would be interested in doing this. I would probably attempt to find a way to print at least a portion of it as well. You can contact me with any questions or comments.
CT News Editor
This is my response. His questions can be answered in many ways—but in general, I would start by saying that Virginia Tech’s approach to the problem has not been candid in identifying mistakes in judgment, not been thorough in its research of the problem in its entirety, and certainly has not addressed all the problems that surfaced on that horrific day—April 16, 2007. True, Virginia Tech has implemented new security systems and policies, and the school is to be commended for that. But, Virginia Tech has not done all it can do.
There are schools that are looking at a broader and more comprehensive approach to preventing gun violence on campus. Indeed, that is what Virginia Tech needs to be doing. As an example of such an approach, I included in my response to Crizer a blog of my own citing SUNY-Oneonta as an excellent example of a school adopting a broad approach to security in an effort to prevent campus shootings. (That blog, and other articles related to school safety, can be found at www.aquestionofaccountability.com.)
Granted, SUNY-Oneonta, with an enrollment of around 6,000, is smaller than Virginia Tech’s 28,000 plus student body. Some argue that Tech is too big to adopt a SUNY-style security plan. But, SUNY-Oneonta is the pilot for all 18 campuses of the SUNY system and New York will be putting the Oneonta security system on all campuses to protect the school’s nearly 80,000 students.
I would argue that if SUNY can do it on 18 campuses with 80,000 students, Tech can do it on one campus with 27,000. The real problem may not be the size of the school; the real problem may be the school administration’s and politicians’ unwillingness to face up to the shortcomings of April 16, 2007—address those shortcomings and then allocate the funds and resources necessary to improve security.
In my face-to-face talks with law enforcement officials—ranging from one of the chief investigators of Columbine, to campus security officers in New York and Ohio—almost all scratch their heads and express wonder at what goes on in Virginia when it comes to protecting our schools. One law enforcement official with over 20 years experience in the field of campus security, and first hand experience of a school shooting—who asked to remain anonymous—said his state and school would never permit threatening behavior to go unheeded the way school officials did at Virginia Tech. He simply shook his head and referred to Virginia as the Jurassic Park of guns on campus and school safety.
I keep going back to the human factor in school safety. I have yet to see or hear Virginia Tech issue a statement that any threat or menacing acts will not be tolerated. At SUNY-Oneonta, the chief of police has the authority to immediately remove any person from the campus who he deems a threat. At Wright State University in Ohio, I was told the same is true. In fact, if there is a question of the individual’s mental stability, the individual is put in squad car and taken to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. There is no pondering, no calling of policy groups, no bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. The individual will not be allowed back on campus until that evaluation is complete, and he or she is deemed safe and not a threat.
There are so many aspects to school safety beyond an electronic or any warning system. Part of the problem may be that school presidents are hired for their ability to raise money, not their ability to react in a crisis. Perhaps the hiring profile for the leaders of our colleges and universities should be changed to help ensure safety. Or, perhaps a change of rules is needed? For example, granting Chief Flinchum the authority to close the campus without having to consult the school’s president would be a step in the right direction.
The more I investigate, the more concerned I am. If you look at Tech President Steger’s own words about the improvements on the campus, what does he say? In fact, his words underscore how little Virginia Tech has done. President Steger’s words are, in many respects, a self-indictment. Compare what he had to say about security at Virginia Tech after the slaying of Xin Yang on January 21, 2009, with SUNY-Oneonta’s security:
1. “At Virginia Tech we have added 11 positions to the VTPD and now have a 70- person police and security force.” Now, look at the security measures the State University New York-Oneonta (SUNY-Oneonta) has enacted:
a. The ability to lock down every building on campus (with the exception of the gym) with four strokes on the computer keyboard.
b. Radio systems in all buildings for emergency use.
c. Blue prints of all campus buildings on hand in the police headquarters in case of an emergency.
d. A campus-wide siren for notification that there is an emergency on campus.
e. SUNY-Oneonta will soon have in place a video and card access system for all campus buildings.
f. SUNY-Oneonta has bought and installed a sophisticated key system for all buildings. The keys cannot be duplicated.
2. According to Steger, “University officials continue to work very closely with each other to identify and evaluate students in need. The Treat Assessment team and the CARE Team meet regularly to assist students with problems in school or personal life. The Threat Assessment Team also intervenes when it appears that an individual could be a threat to self or others in our community (students, employees, or visitors).” Compare Steger’s words with the program at SUNY-Oneonta:
a. A Behavioral Assessment Team that meets every week to discuss student problems and activities. The group is made up of Police Chief Ingersoll, the Director of Counseling, the Director of Residence Life, the Associate Vice President for Judicial Affairs, the Vice President of Student Development, and the Health Center Director.
b. SUNY-Oneonta has a full-time Emergency Management Coordinator.
c. SUNY-Oneonta regularly reviews its crime prevention security analysis for campus buildings.
3. Steger pointed to the fact that, “The university works closely with the Community Service Board in ordering commitments of students in need of immediate counseling (Temporary Detention Orders).” Now take a look at SUNY-Oneonta:
a. Students are given a full security briefing as part of their campus orientation.
b. The Chief of Police has the power to act immediately and to take whatever action he deems necessary if an individual is thought to be a danger to him or herself or others.
c. Each staff and faculty member has at her or his desk a bright orange Crisis Management folder for immediate and easy reference. The folder contains phone numbers and contact instructions.
4. Steger also asserted that, “During an emergency the university can use several notification methods, including VT Alerts. More people within the university have been trained to issue emergency alerts through the university emergency notification system. First-responders can asses the scene and determine whether an immediate alert or notification should be issued by the police department.” Good start, but not enough. Look at SUNY:
a. SUNY-Oneonta has the ability to notify all students, staff, and faculty of an emergency through NY ALERT—a cell phone/email/text messaging system. All New York State University campuses will have this system within the near future.
b. The school is linked to major criminal data bases in Albany.
c. The University Police Department has an ambulance on hand, on campus.
d. It is a state law that university police departments on state-affiliated schools must have a Memorandum of Understanding with the state police on immediate emergency response and actions. SUNY-Oneonta has such a memorandum and maintains close ties with the New York State Police and the city of Oneonta Police Department.
President Steger’s words are a disappointment. If the school had the safety of its students, faculty, and staff as a top priority, Virginia Tech would have a far better system of security and emergency response than his words indicate.
I keep going back to the human factor in the problem, and the poor decisions made on the morning of April 16, 2007—and in the days following the tragedy. For example, less than six weeks after the shootings the school signed an agreement with one of the nation’s largest public relations firms, Burson-Marsteller, to spin the story of the tragedy in such a way as to do minimal damage to Virginia Tech and its administration. The school paid $663,000.00 to that public relations firm. Virginia Tech has an office that deals with public relations, the school has some of the best minds in the country, yet it spent nearly $700,000.00 on public relations. That money would have been better spent on improving campus security; and when you compare it to the $100,000.00 that the victims’ families received, the $663,000.00 becomes shameful.
Virginia Tech should be in the forefront of organizing better campus security in Blacksburg and state-wide. I am afraid it is not. Virginia Tech’s emphasis on “emergency notification systems” is only a small part of the problem. In fact, this emphasis on “systems” has diverted attention away from other, serious aspects of the problem our schools confront. Virginia has been the site of two of the nation’s worst school shootings, yet Virginia politicians and academic leaders have been sluggish in responding to the threat. I am afraid the real problem is: protecting careers, unwillingness to allocate funds, and poor leadership.