Colleges rethink security in wake of Arizona shooting

The incident last week reinforces the need for good communication between university faculty and police.

Sitting in her small office amid textbooks on the ancient Romans and Greeks, Alison Futrell expresses a thoroughly modern fear: that she or other University of Arizona instructors could face a repeat of the violence that struck here last week, when a despondent student gunned down three nursing college professors before killing himself.

"I realize that the odds are very much against a similar situation occurring again," says Dr. Futrell, who teaches history on the sprawling, 34,000-student campus. "But I'm at a loss whether there's anything the university can do to safeguard against this kind of act."

Similar concerns are heard across the nation, as colleges struggle to protect themselves from attacks like the one perpetrated here by Robert Flores, a Gulf War veteran and struggling student.

Despite statistics showing that such incidents are rare on campuses, several recent acts of violence have generated much attention: In August, a professor and student were killed in a murder-suicide at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. In May, a gunman shot a professor before killing himself at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. And in January, a failing student opened fire, killing the dean, a teacher, and another student at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va.

These attacks have prompted universities to reexamine their approaches to keeping violence in check. "In spite of the safety nets that we set up on campus, a handful of individuals can fall through that protective net," says John Megerson, police director at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, and an official with the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

At the same time, campuses tread a fine line between security and academic freedom. College police departments have grown increasingly sophisticated over the past decade, and their arsenals include everything from night-vision goggles and high-powered rifles to pepper spray. But schools that go too far "can wind up creating a quasi-police state, where going to classrooms and dormitories is like going through airport security checkpoints," says Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education.

Even strict –policies and model police work don't provide ready answers: Like most campuses, the University of Arizona already prohibits firearms, but that hardly stopped the gunman. And campus police responded to the shootings within three minutes. "You can't improve much on that," says university spokeswoman Sharon Kha. "This isn't a case where having armed guards posted around the building would have prevented anything from happening."

Instead, Mr. Megerson says the most important element for maintaining campus security is decidedly low tech: good communication between police and faculty. If officers are "viewed as a necessary evil, then you don't have the necessary linkages with faculty and staff," he says. "But if the police are viewed as part of the university community, and we're all working towards the same end, then you get those linkages."

Fostering better communication can be as simple as location. For example, Megerson's department recently moved its headquarters to the center of the Southwest Texas State campus, rather than on the fringes. "Now we have faculty right upstairs from our offices."

At the same time, instructors must take the initiative to contact police when they first sense that students may pose a risk, says Susan Riseling, University of Wisconsin police chief and chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police's university and colleges division. Her department often gets calls from professors only minutes before they deliver bad news, such as a failing doctoral thesis, to a volatile student. "Think about someone telling you that the last four or five years of your life wasn't working out," she says. "Even a sane person would be very upset."

Still reeling from the attack, the University of Arizona is relying on education and better communication as it struggles to reclaim a sense of security. A series of workshops for instructors "will focus upon assessing mental health risks," says Ms. Kha, "how to identify people in trouble, how to get help to them."

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