University officials are starting to ask tough questions about
what they can learn from the worst shooting in United States
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
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
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
"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