Magazine article Security Management

Painful Lessons

Magazine article Security Management

Painful Lessons

Article excerpt

ON DECEMBER 6, 1989, THE UNIVERSITY OF MONTREAL'S ENGINEERING SCHOOL, L'ECOLE POLYTECHNIQUE, WAS THE SITE OF A BRUTAL ATTACK BY A LONE GUNMAN. WHEN IT WAS OVER, FOURTEEN WOMEN HAD BEEN KILLED, AND THIRTEEN MALE AND FEMALE STUDENTS HAD BEEN WOUNDED. WHILE A PUBLIC INSTITUTION CAN NEVER COMPLETELY ERADICATE THE THREAT OF SUCH VIOLENCE, SECURITY MANAGERS MAY BE ABLE TO IMPROVE THEIR ABILITY TO FEND OFF OR CUT SHORT SUCH ATTACKS BY EXAMINING THE LESSONS LEARNED IN THIS CASE.

The incident, The autumn semester was nearly over; it was the day before final exams. Although it was late afternoon, the halls of the six-story engineering school, L'Ecole Polytechnique, were crowded with students looking forward to the mid-semester break and Christmas holidays. In this atmosphere of hurry and excitement, a man dressed in a hunting outfit and carrying a green plastic bag entered the second floor from the stairwell. He walked in on a nearby mechanical engineering class and pulled a semiautomatic rifle from the bag.

The stranger fired a round into the ceiling and ordered the ten female students to one corner of the classroom and the fifty male students to another. The gunman commanded the men to leave and the women to remain. After the male students had fled, he accused the women of being feminists and fired at the group, killing six of them.

The gunman ran out of the classroom and shot randomly at the students in the crowded hallway. He moved to the first floor and entered the cafeteria, where he gunned down three women, then bolted to the third floor and shot four more women. The gunman visited both the fourth and fifth floors, randomly firing at students. Finally, the assailant turned the rifle on himself. He was later identified as Marc Lepine, an unemployed, single twenty-five year old whose application for admission to L'Ecole Polytechnique had been rejected. He had a history of hostility toward women.

Denial. The scholastic environment, with its demand for freedom, often reduces the effectiveness of campus security. Despite the rise in workplace violence, to which educational institutions are not immune, most schools of higher learning are reluctant to admit that the sanctity of campus and classroom can be violated. But the University of Montreal incident is another in a line of examples that reveal the vulnerability of campus settings.

Richard Speck's attack on the South Chicago Community Hospital's student nurses dormitory, where he killed eight students on July 13, 1966, came as a complete shock to the local population, which was - even in that era - used to crime. Equally unexpected was the attack at the University of Texas in Austin on August 1, 1966. Charles J. Whitman commandeered the twenty-seven story observation tower at the center of campus and fired on those below, killing twelve and injuring thirty-one. More recently, the administration of small Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was bewildered when an eighteen-year-old violin student named Wayne Lo shot six people on December 14, 1992.

Challenges. Campus security is made more difficult by the diversity of the student population. Students vary widely in age and come from many different economic and cultural backgrounds. Their dress ranges from bohemian to paramilitary; hairstyles vary from orange spikes to shaven heads. Spotting someone who does not belong is difficult at best.

Richard Aube, former director of security for L'Ecole Polytechnique, said in an interview with the author soon after the event that students recalled seeing Lepine roaming the building about a half hour prior to the shootings. They saw no reason to report him. Lepine's one suspicious act apparently went unnoticed. He had driven his vehicle to the university and parked it in a tow-away zone outside the main entrance to the engineering school.

Although it may not have helped in this case, members of the community should be encouraged to report suspicious or abnormal activity to campus security. …

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