September 6, 2007
Va. Tech Shooting Spurs Changes at Colleges
By Pauline Vu, Staff Writer
That quick response demonstrates one of the changes at colleges in the post-Virginia Tech world. The April 16 shooting on the Blacksburg, Va., campus, where a disturbed college senior killed 32 students and professors before turning the gun on himself, is spurring a new look at how colleges handle students with mental health problems, guns on campus and especially campus security.
Emergency text-messaging systems are turning de rigueur on campuses. Unarmed campus police officers are pushing for the right to carry guns. Universities are increasing mental health services and setting up teams to spot troubled students earlier.
Many schools already have tightened security. This year, freshmen orientations across the country have included sessions on safety, and several colleges have held drills simulating a shooter on campus.
Some, including Virginia Tech, have installed locks inside the doors of classrooms, a direct response to the massacre, during which students barricaded the door with tables-or themselves-while the gunman tried to enter. New Jersey state Sen. Barbara Buono (D) she said she plans to propose a bill to require locks on every college and school classroom door in her state.
The most widespread change involves how colleges inform students of an emergency. After a four-month investigation, a panel convened by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) harshly criticized Virginia Tech for waiting more than two hours to inform students of shooter Seung Hui Cho's initial attack at about 7:15 a.m., when he killed two students at a residence hall. The university sent students an e-mail at 9:26 a.m., just 14 minutes before Cho's second and far-deadlier attack in a classroom building.
That delay had colleges scrambling for a better way to alert students to emergencies. Purdue University, for example, launched a group on the social-networking Internet site Facebook days after the shooting called "Purdue Emergency Notification" to post campus security notifications. Several schools are planning to install or make better use of campus sirens. So many colleges, including Virginia Tech, are unveiling systems to send emergency text messages to students' cell phones that text-message alerts are starting to be the norm, not the exception.
Omnilert LLC, which sells mass notification systems, said the number of colleges using its campus emergency-alert system has jumped from about 25 to 200 since the shootings, with more calling every day. The systems use phone calls, e-mail, RSS computer feeds, loudspeakers and digital billboards but mostly text messages to get the word out. Omnilert spokesman Bryan Crum said text messages have been sent out for weather alerts, bomb scares, power outages and even a loose pit bull.
The Virginia Tech killings also sparked a new gun debate: whether to allow those with concealed-weapon permits to carry firearms on campus. While many college administrators say guns and students are a volatile mix that could lead to more violence, gun-rights proponents contend Virginia Tech's victims may have been able to defend themselves if they'd been allowed to carry guns on campus.
Forty-eight states allow concealed weapons, but most ban guns on university grounds or allow colleges to set their own policies, and most colleges ban guns. Utah is the only state that allows concealed weapons on campus.
In Virginia, the debate is especially emotional because a bill to allow guns on campus died in committee when the General Assembly adjourned just before the attack. Since then, several chapters of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus have formed at colleges across the country.
After the shooting, four states proposed pro-gun bills to allow concealed-weapons license holders to bring guns on college grounds. Measures in Alabama and South Carolina failed, but Michigan's and Ohio's bills are still pending. A Nevada bill to allow teachers to bring guns on campus also failed.
One state, Nebraska, added colleges to the places where concealed guns are automatically banned, while Nevada now requires any college student caught with a gun to take a drug test and get counseling. But gun-control bills were defeated, too. Louisiana lawmakers killed a bill that would have banned guns in college dorms, and Maine legislators refused to pass a bill that would have given colleges the right to prohibit guns.
But there still may be more guns on campus-in the hands of campus security officers. The Iowa Board of Regents is in the middle of a fierce debate over whether to reverse its policy of not allowing campus police to regularly carry weapons at Iowa State, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa. The three are the only schools in the Big 12, Big 10 and Missouri Valley conferences that have unarmed police.
In Nevada, the Board of Regents approved a plan by the university system's four police chiefs to train and deputize faculty and staff volunteers to have more guns on campus to combat a shooter.
There have not been many calls from state legislators to tighten general access to guns, but plans to make it tougher for the mentally ill to buy firearms have been bolstered by the backing of the powerful gun rights lobby, the National Rifle Association.
Congress also is debating a bill that seeks to boost the number of states participating in a federal program designed to keep the mentally ill from buying firearms. As of July 31, 28 states provide records of those with disqualifying mental histories to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), an FBI database that lets gun dealers across the country identify potentially dangerous buyers. Since the shooting, Connecticut, Illinois, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin have submitted information, the FBI reported.
Cho had exploited a loophole in Virginia law that kept his name out of the database even though he was under orders to receive outpatient mental help. Since the attack, the governor of Virginia closed the loophole, Maine's governor issued an executive order requiring his state to begin providing mental health information to the federal database, and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) signed a bill on Aug. 31 ordering police to turn in similar data.
Officials have zeroed in on several areas where Virginia's mental health system failed Cho. The Virginia Tech report found that one of the university's greatest failings was letting him slip through the cracks when students, professors, and even those who worked at the school's counseling office were aware of his mental health problems. The report also faulted school officials' misinterpretation of privacy laws to mean that couldn't share information with Cho's parents. But so far changes have been slower in coming to mental health practices.
"This has been a big wake-up call … as far as what are we doing to make sure there's a continuity of care," said Laura Galbreath, the director of health care reform for Mental Health America, a nonprofit group that advocates for better mental health services. "How do we make sure that someone gets the follow-up care that they need?"
Schools are considering ways to increase mental health services, better inform students of those services and spot troubled students ahead of time. For example, Indiana University sent a memo to professors detailing the warning signs of at-risk behavior in students, while the University of Maine is encouraging students to report emotional problems to its anonymous tip line.
More schools also are setting up teams of people from different university groups, such as faculty and residential life, to spot and help students who exhibit troubling behavior, such as skipping classes. The University of Wisconsin system recommended that its schools set up such teams, while the team at the University of Maine will begin meeting on a weekly basis instead of only when needed.