How safe are college campuses?
The shootings at Virginia Tech may challenge a cherished culture of openness.
CHICAGO and NEW York
University officials are starting to ask tough questions about what they can learn from the worst shooting in United States history.Skip to next paragraph
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Many colleges adopted new security plans and procedures in the wake of the 1999 Columbine high school and other mass shootings. But preventing – and reacting to – such attacks poses a daunting challenge to campuses that treasure open environments and oftenbucolic settings that encompass hundreds of buildings.
"The world has changed and we now have to think about balancing the open campus with the secure campus," says Dennis Black, a vice president at the University at Buffalo, noting that this is a wake-up call. "It's Charles Whitman [who killed 16 at the University of Texas in 1966] and Columbine rolled into one."
Already, Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed Tuesday by a student who then killed himself, is under attack for not locking down campus after the first of two shootings. But experts note that tighter security in the aftermath of violence isn't always effective. Instead, some argue, universities must focus more on preventive measures like outreach and helping students identify early signs of trouble.
"For a period of time, colleges and universities will take the law-and-order approach, and it will make students and professors and administrators feel safer. They won't be safer, but they'll feel safer, and that isn't a small thing," says Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University.
Determined shooters will always find a way to get to people, he says, noting that in at least one past case, shooters pulled a fire alarm and waited until students filed out before opening fire. "You can't make college buildings into safe havens," he adds. While most people who exhibit warning signs will never pick up a gun, trying to reach them early on to make them feel less isolated can only help, he says. "If we wait until they want to kill a lot of people, it's too late."
Random mass shootings have generally been rare at colleges. Before the Virginia Tech massacre, the worst campus shooting took place in 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin, when Charles Whitman killed 16 people from the observation deck of a clock tower before he was gunned down. Instead, colleges have tended to focus on assaults, rapes, and other violent crimes. Since the "Clery Act" was enacted in 1990 – named for Jeanne Clery, raped and murdered in her Lehigh University dorm room – colleges have been required to report violent crimes on campus and notify students when it takes place. Such crimes have tended to mirror national statistics, dropping sharply between 1994 and 2002 and edging up since then, says Lori Sudderth, director of Quinnipiac University's criminal justice program.
"We are in a better situation than we were 10 to 20 years ago," Professor Sudderth says. "Victims of violence have more ways to report it than before." In 2005, FBI statistics show that Virginia Tech, with a student body of 27,619, had only four reported violent crimes – fairly typical for a large university. However, Sudderth says, the reported numbers usually underestimate the problem, with crimes like sexual assaults often vastly underreported.
Like Levin, Sudderth hopes the Virginia Tech incident makes universities look more closely at security and ways to treat students with mental-health problems. "I would hope we at least ask, 'What do you look for in a violent offender? How do you intervene earlier?'"