Last Week's Campus Lockdowns

Delaware State University made all the headlines on September 21 when a freshman shot and wounded two students on campus, one seriously. An arrest and an apology later, the 18-year-old charged with the crime sits behind bars. But months after Virginia Tech, the incident sparked comparisons in both the nature of the shootings and the effectiveness of the response.

October 1, 2007

Delaware State University made all the headlines on September 21 when a freshman shot and wounded two students on campus, one seriously. An arrest and an apology later, the 18-year-old charged with the crime sits behind bars. But months after Virginia Tech, the incident sparked comparisons in both the nature of the shootings and the effectiveness of the response.

The following week was eventful by almost any standard, too. A masked man with a black-powder rifle set off an immediate response on Wednesday on the campus of St. John's University, in New York City. On the same day, officials at Middle Tennessee State University announced that a freshman had attacked a female student in his dorm room and was charged with attempted first-degree murder.

Other incidents of violence or threatened violence cropped up on campuses across the country within the same few days: authorities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison locked down several buildings on Tuesday after a man threatened to kill himself or be killed by police; officials at the University of Winnipeg, in Manitoba, responded to an anonymous threat citing a specific date; a graduate student at Ohio University was charged with murder in the stabbing death of his father, a retired professor there; an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Arizona was arrested for allegedly stabbing her roommate to death over accusations of stealing.

The only commonality among the incidents -- which varied in severity, scale and outcome -- would appear to be the timing. They occurred some five months after Seung-Hui Cho, 23, killed 32 students at Virginia Tech and then himself, sparking a national debate over campus security, a wave of task forces investigating campuses' incident response plans, and reassessments of colleges' safety protocols.

If nothing else, the most recent acts of violence represent a test of the institutions' revised mobilization plans and an opportunity to ask: Are colleges more prepared than they were before the April 16 shootings? Have their responses been more effective, or have campus safety officials overreacted, fearing the next Virginia Tech?

"I think there’s a heightened awareness since Virginia Tech of what could happen," said Christopher G. Blake, the campus preparedness project director at the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. "To the extent that that’s driving people to respond more quickly in terms of notifications, we may be seeing that."

St. John's came to embody the quick response last week. When officials first heard that police had captured an armed man on campus, at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, they responded immediately: A text message went out precisely eight minutes later. For Dominic Scianna, the director of media relations, the messaging protocol was a success. Just before the incident, about 2,100 students had signed up for the text service; within 24 hours, that number had more than tripled to over 6,500 (out of a student population of just under 15,000 at the Queens campus), Scianna said.

The New York Police Department converged on the campus, and officials issued an order to "stay in place" -- essentially a lockdown order that lasted some three hours. "Certainly we’re sensitive to the Virginia Tech situation," Scianna said, but besides upgrading communication technology, he explained that the university's current security plan dates to reassessments that occurred after the September 11 attacks, which altered behavior at many New York City campuses, given their proximity.

Text messaging was crucial, Scianna added, but it was not the only means with which the university kept students updated on the situation. Officials used e-mail, voice messages to students' campus telephones, the university Web site and even the plasma TV screens posted across campus. Using the Internet to keep students informed made sense at St. John's, especially, since freshmen receive wireless laptops for their entire stay at the university.

Texting has emerged as the communication method of choice ever since Virginia Tech was roundly criticized for not keeping students informed of the shootings in a timely enough manner, and for relying on phones and e-mail when many students were not in their dorm rooms during Cho's spree. St. John's adopted the technology only this semester.

But the latest technology isn't always the best or the only solution. Mixing high and low tech (giving rise to phrases like "multiple channels") was a theme during last week's incident at Wisconsin, which took the novel step of posting a much-viewed flyer about the suicide threat on Facebook, but also relied on more traditional methods. At Delaware State, resident advisers went door to door to inform students, who might not otherwise have been reachable at night, said S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of the nonprofit advocacy group Security on Campus. But keeping in constant contact with local media was also an important part of the universities' strategies, as it was at Virginia Tech.

For the University of Winnipeg spokesman Shawn Coates, the response was partially about the "greater media world out there" that keeps people up to date. The university discovered a threat scrawled in a bathroom on September 19, giving it a week to prepare for the stated date of September 26 on which a violent act was supposed to occur. "We decided that the prudent thing to do was to be proactive ... as opposed to hiding our head in the sand," Coates said. Officials boosted security on campus, kept students up to speed through the Web and other outlets and worked with Winnipeg police.

Despite that initial response, the university opted to remain open on the 26th but give students the option to not attend classes. About 20 percent of course meetings were canceled, and about a quarter of students did not come to campus that day, according to Coates.

"Certainly, the incidents at Virginia Tech ... were well within our mind. Those incidents have ... given people on all campuses a heightened sense for a need of adequate security responses," Coates said. But still, "we had a unique situation that had to be dealt with uniquely." Despite the heightened awareness, he said, Virginia Tech didn't "factor that greatly into our decision to respond to this threat."

Carter, of Security on Campus, said the increased awareness probably led to a "stronger response" in some cases. "Generally, yes, it’s a good thing," he said, but colleges should "make sure that it’s a reasonable response even based on what you know, or what you don’t know."

"Now for certain other situations, [universities' immediate actions] may or may not be a measured response," he added.

While it would be hard to argue that St. John's and Delaware State were not justified in their strong, quick responses, it's clear that their approaches would be more appropriate in some cases than others. Either way, under the shadow of Virginia Tech, security officials are continuing to abide by the dictums "be prepared," "assume the worst" and now, perhaps, "don't forget text messages."

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