Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Safety pins: Making the best of Whitman campus security

“I think the biggest lesson learned from that whole situation at Virginia Tech is don’t wait. Once you have an incident, start notifying the community,” said Delaware State University spokesman Carlos Holmes on Friday, Sept. 21.

That day, two students were shot and wounded at Delaware State. University President Allen Sessoms said that the school had applied lessons from the Virginia Tech tragedy that helped quicken communication during Friday’s violent episode. Security measures you can take now | by Sarah Anderson

Colleges across the country, including Whitman, have reexamined their approaches to security, communication and counseling services following the tragic events in Blacksburg, Va. last April.

LOOKING BACK

The Virginia Tech shootings occurred on Apr. 16, 2007 when senior student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people with a pair of handguns before committing suicide. It was the worst school shooting in United States history.

The event spawned grief and a nationwide outpouring of support. At Whitman, students held a well attended vigil on the Cordiner lawn where members of the college and Walla Walla communities shared their thoughts. Students also sent Virginia Tech a banner covered in messages of sympathy and support.

The tragedy generated fears of a copycat killer, leading Whitman to set up a day of extra security. “There was initially uncertainty as to whether this was an isolated incident or orchestrated,” Director of Security Terry Thompson said. Security had an extra person on duty for the Friday following the Virginia Tech shootings.

That night, a freestyle battle was held on the tennis courts. Security staff shut down the event, citing alcohol violations, which angered some students. Senior Avi Conant, who helped organize the battle, regretted its untimely end but did not see a direct connection to the extra security. “In some sense, heightened security may have given them a pretext, but it might have happened anyway,” he said. “It was primarily a lack of communication.” Safety pins: Making the best of Whitman campus security | Photo by Ben Hayes

The Whitman counseling office also increased its availability in the aftermath of the shootings, but did not receive much student response. “There were a couple of people, but there was more concern from staff and faculty,” said Richard Jacks, director of the counseling center.

GOING FORWARD

Virginia Tech began a new school year on Aug. 20 under intense media scrutiny.

The campus recently completed an internal review spearheaded by President Charles W. Steger, which concluded that Virginia Tech will need to “improve its monitoring of troubled students, enhance campus-wide communications and better secure campus buildings.”

To do so, officials at the school have recommended increasing counseling for mentally ill students, creating Internet message boards to alert students of emergencies and installing more surveillance cameras and door locks, according to the New York Times. Some of these changes have already taken place.

In the wake of Virginia Tech, many colleges have formed committees to evaluate their individual response plans. “I think just like post-9/11, there’s a post-April 16 mentality,” said Gerald Massengill, who led a panel at Delaware State University, where the quick response to Friday’s shootings is being touted as an indication of that panel’s success.

In response to the Virginia Tech tragedy, Whitman initiated a task force to examine the readiness of the college to respond to similar situations.

The group began meeting this summer and will meet next week to discuss a preliminary draft of its emergency management preparedness assessment. “One of our key themes is prevention,” said Peter Harvey, Whitman treasurer and head of the task force. “Whitman does a fairly good job.”

Criticisms of Virginia Tech’s communication methods: the school waited nearly two hours before e-mailing students about the initial shootings: have led many colleges to explore technologies that would more quickly alert students of any threats.

Whitman, said Thompson and Harvey, is considering many options for campus-wide communication: mass e-mails, cell phones, VoIP and even sirens. Officials are also discussing whether to require electronic card readers on all buildings. “It’s hard, because it’s also a culture issue,” said Harvey, noting how such restriction might impact Whitman’s open environment.

Like officials at Virginia Tech, Harvey believes that a campus-wide lockdown would not be feasible.
Richard Jacks said the counseling center continues to try to improve its services. “If anything, [the Virginia Tech tragedy] made us more sensitized to making sure people don’t fall through the cracks.”

He noted, however, that this is much more unlikely on the Whitman campus than at a larger university. “This place is so incestuous…everyone knows everyone’s business, and sometimes the faculty functions almost like a mother,” Jacks said, citing instances where worried faculty members have gone to students’ homes and encouraged them to receive counseling.

Harvey plans to hold a forum at which students can give their input and suggestions, hopefully in October.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

A Virginia government report that came out on Aug. 30 was critical of Virginia Tech’s infrastructure.
“No one knew all the information and no one connected the dots,” said the report, highlighting a lack of communication that may have played a part in the events at Virginia Tech. Many individual concerns about Seung-Hui Cho were not shared between branches of the university and there was confusion over confidentiality laws.

Whitman is one of many schools working to increase communication between departments and between the college and the wider community.

Even prior to the incident at Virginia Tech, Whitman officials were meeting once a week to discuss students in need within clearly defined limits of confidentiality.

“It provides a safety net and dispels rumors,” said Thompson. At the meetings are representatives from security, counseling, Residence Life, professors and others who are in contact with students on a day-to-day basis. If there is widespread concern over a student, officials will then work to get that student help.

Harvey said Whitman’s safety director is also working with officials from the other two colleges in Walla Walla “to develop a consistent expectation of the police department,” since unlike Virginia Tech, Whitman does not have its own police force.

Thompson is himself a former sergeant with the Walla Walla Police and talks with them frequently about plans and strategies.

“The issues [of Virginia Tech] are still in our minds and thoughts,” said Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland. “The chances are small, but it could happen.”

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