Senate hearing focuses on campus safety

Times Staff Writer

Educators and public safety experts told a Senate committee Monday that colleges and universities were generally safe but remained vulnerable to attacks by terrorists and deranged students.

They proposed a variety of remedies, including better emergency training for faculty and staff, improved communication and increased spending on student mental health services.

But, they told senators on the Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee that the open, sprawling nature of most campuses -- including Virginia Tech, the site of last week’s massacre -- made it impossible to eliminate all risks.

“By and large, American schools and campuses are safe places,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “But like all other places and institutions, they are subject to an array of hazards and risks and accidents. And millions of children who go to these campuses and the parents who send them there need to be sure that we are doing everything collectively to make sure these children are safe.”


More can and should be done, said W. Roger Webb, a former Oklahoma commissioner of public safety who is now president of the University of Central Oklahoma.

“Campus administrators must review and revise their security procedures, their technology and communication measures, their budget commitments and perhaps most importantly, their training and awareness programs,” he said.

Universities, Webb said, should use multiple means of communication to alert students and employees of emergencies -- from social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to “old-fashioned” methods, such as sirens, media broadcasts and telephone calling trees.

Russ Federman, director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Virginia, called for additional funding for mental health programs. He said 1 in 11 university students sought counseling or psychological help in the last year, and a similar ratio had contemplated suicide. Of the approximately 18 million students enrolled in higher education nationwide in 2006, his figures show, about 234,000 attempted suicide.

“We know that some students become suicidal before they become homicidal -- before they act on their murderous wishes,” he said.

Seung-hui Cho, a 23-year-old Virginia Tech senior, fatally shot himself last week on campus after killing 32 others, the deadliest mass shooting by a single individual in U.S. history.

Virginia Tech administrators have been criticized for waiting more than two hours to e-mail students and staff about the 7:15 a.m. shooting of two students at a dorm -- which police initially believed to be a domestic dispute.

Meanwhile, Cho was making his way to Norris Hall, where he killed 30 people and himself. A second e-mail, warning people to “stay put” because a gunman was “loose on campus” was sent at 9:50 a.m., five minutes after 911 reports of gunshots in Norris Hall. Loudspeaker messages warned students to take cover. And two more e-mails followed over the next hour saying classes were canceled and warning people to stay inside.

Critics also have asked why university officials did not monitor Cho after he was released from an overnight stay at a private mental health facility in December 2005, when he was determined to be an “imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness.” Cho was held at the facility after two female students told campus police that he was stalking them.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate panel, stressed that campus safety nationwide -- not the Virginia Tech shootings -- was the focus of his committee’s hastily arranged hearing.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has appointed an independent panel to review police and university response to the shootings.