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Can We Stop the Next Cho Seung-Hui?

To prevent school shootings and improve response, agencies on and off campus need to work together.

June 01, 2007  |  by - Also by this author


At about 9 a.m. on April 16, snow was flurrying down on the Virginia Tech University campus. The flakes drifted lazily into the trees. Students walked to class. It was pretty. It was peaceful. It was the kind of scene that a college catalog photographer prays for.

Just minutes later, the peace was broken. A deranged 23-year-old English major named Cho Seung-Hui had planned a nightmare. His blood lust whetted by an earlier shooting at one of the co-ed dorms, Cho walked into a classroom building, chained the doors shut, moved up the stairs, and proceeded to gun down his fellow students. He then killed himself as police from several agencies broke into the building in an attempt to stop the slaughter.

Virginia Tech University was now forever linked to other American schools that had experienced the murderous onslaught of an active shooter. It's a club that no other school wants to join. And the question all school police and security officials are asking is: "How can we stop the next one?"

It's hard to imagine anything good coming out of the Virginia Tech Massacre. But the widespread attention the shootings have received could bring about positive results if it spurs action by law enforcement and educators to make the nation's schools safer.

Opening Lines of Communication

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, most, if not all, institutions of higher education are currently reviewing their policies regarding security and emergency response. This provides an excellent opportunity for agencies to discuss their common concerns regarding active shooters.

"This is a good time for local police officials to approach their local college and university officials about improving their level of cooperation or creating it if it's not there," says Michael Dorn, co-author of "Innocent Targets: When Terrorism Comes to School."

As a 30-year veteran of law enforcement in and out of schools, Dorn's been on both sides of the table at such discussions, and he knows what works. He believes that the discussion of school shooters and how to respond to them can lead to better communications between municipal and county officers and school police. But they will have to be willing to work at it.

Fortunately, some already are working at it. Since Columbine, school officers have faced intense pressure to change their methods of operation and work more closely with non-campus cops. The result has been multiple agency drills on some campuses. The frequency of these drills is likely to increase in the wake of Virginia Tech.

"To meet CALEA requirements, we review, critique, and modify our emergency management plan on an annual basis, and conduct mock drills annually," says Chief John Peach of the Kent State University Police in Ohio. "We review our plan on an annual or a needs basis. If we have to review it three to four times a year, we do."

Working with campus law enforcement to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding these plans is important for all involved. And this is by no means a charity effort. If campus law enforcement is properly prepared, it will make it that much easier for other agencies to provide effective aid.

"If you're a police officer responding to this type of situation, if the university or college doesn't have really top-flight plans, your job is going to be much more difficult," says Dorn. "If they don't have virtual tours of the buildings, if they don't have good crisis communications, and particularly if they are not formally trained in the national incident management system (NIMS) so they can make the right decisions quickly, you're going to face additional challenges that you shouldn't have to as a patrol officer."

If your local college and university campuses aren't up to speed, it's in your best interest—and the best interests of your community—to help them bridge that gap in training and overall preparedness.

Arming Campus Cops

Convincing college and university administrators that campus police officers need to be armed is one of the major stumbling blocks in preparing schools to respond to the Cho Seung-Huis of the world. Their liberal politics just won't let them accept the fact that cops should have guns.

Many of these no-gun campuses are focusing on providing better and faster communications systems to alert everyone on campus to possible or known threats. This is a valid concern. But so is equipping officers on campus so that they can adequately respond to or even prevent such threats.

"I think a college or university that's got unarmed personnel really should reassess that," Dorn says. "And not because of Virginia Tech. I would have said that a year ago. I absolutely would not have a child at a middle or high school, college, or university without armed personnel."

It's important to make administrators understand that protecting the student body and staff is necessary, regardless of what they might think about public perception. This is not the Vietnam era. It's the post-9/11, post-Columbine era. Arming campus law enforcement is now largely viewed as a critical move in protecting everyone on campus. And even if naysayers exist, no one wants a massacre caused by a lack of preparedness.

"People have died because of this before," warns Dorn. "I know an officer who witnessed several homicides on duty because he couldn't carry a gun."

Delays in equipping campus police officers can also be a funding issue. "It's money. Let's face it," says Glenn Miller, chief of the New Jersey State Campus Police. "We're an educational institution, not a security institution. I understand they have to prioritize, but I suspect based on this tragedy we will become a higher priority."

It took the jolt of Columbine to upgrade training and firearms policies at schools that teach children from kindergarten through grade 12. Cho Seung-Hui's shootings at Virginia Tech might cause the same effect on higher education campuses.

Getting Fully Equipped

But just giving cops handguns can't solve the problem. All campus law enforcement officers need to be properly trained and equipped to effectively respond to an active shooter situation or other incident. It's happening in city and county schools, but not so much in higher education.

Ready access to handguns, long guns, ballistic vests and helmets, and training in how to use all of these in a variety of critical incident situations is something some agencies take for granted and others can't fathom having. And campus police aren't the only ones that are ill equipped.

"There are school police, university police, municipal, state, and county police that still don't have rifles or carbines in their vehicles," says Dorn. "And we've seen time and again that a handgun is not the best weapon if someone armed with a long gun is intent on killing people."

There's a reason most agencies train and equip first responders to handle barricade situations and other incidents that used to fall to SWAT. In the case of an active shooter, leaving officers on site without the necessary tools to defend students, faculty, and themselves is foolhardy. "The officer needs to be able to very quickly access the right equipment, because by the time a special team gets there, it might be too late to help anybody," says Dorn.

But arming students and teachers is not a good option for preventing violence on campus, Dorn warns. He believes this could create more problems for law enforcement than it would solve. For example, if a legally armed student or teacher were shot by accident by a law enforcement officer who mistook him for an active shooter, the victim's family might sue the officer and/or university.

Peaceable Solutions

Armament is important, but it's not the only component of a school safety plan. Prevention is preferable to reaction after the fact. In fact, according to Dorn, there's much to be learned from the successful implementation of such plans in elementary, middle, and high schools.

"Colleges and universities, contrary to popular belief, have a higher incidence of weapons assaults than their K-12 counterparts," says Dorn. "I would recommend the same proven concepts that have been working incredibly well in the K-12 arena, where the vast majority of planned weapons assaults are successfully averted."

Multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams have had much success in identifying potential problems in the student body at both K-12 and higher education campuses. One team is composed of representatives from school administration, law enforcement, and mental health, as well as other school interests. The model is flexible to accommodate different campuses' needs. All members contribute their respective expertise and knowledge to determine together the level of threat a student poses and how to handle the situation.

Chief Peach of the Kent State Police says he believes in the usefulness of the collaborative model, which can help to address pervasive problems with students that might otherwise be discounted as singular occurrences. "We invite anyone within or outside the university if we think that person would add more assistance to the issue," says Peach of his varied and flexible assessment team. "It's a collective strategy."

Visual screening is another tactic for preventing violent events. It involves watching for unusual behavior to detect weapons on a person. "It all depends on the type of weapon, type of clothing, type of behaviors you're seeing, but it's extremely effective," says Dorn.

"While I was at one campus agency, we stopped six planned school shootings, a planned bombing, and a planned double suicide," says Dorn. "Three of those were averted through the use of visual screening." The rest were averted through use of a multi-disciplinary assessment team.

Metal detection also works in some situations such as special school events like football games and concerts. The technique can prevent simple disagreements from erupting into violence.

Gun detection dogs and plain view vehicle checks are also relatively non-invasive ways to find weapons on a campus. These are not sufficient tactics on their own, but can contribute to an overall atmosphere of weapons awareness and violence prevention.

Installing classroom doors that lock is another simple and effective way to promote safety on campus. If an educator can quickly lock a classroom door when necessary and keep doors locked when rooms are not in use, then a school shooter's options for inflicting harm drop dramatically.

What You Can Do

Media coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings focused on what was not done by university administrators and police, and then gave undue time to Cho's digital media submitted to a television network. Much of what we heard about the event tended to immediately crucify officials and glorify Cho's violence and rantings. Such treatment only serves to encourage copycat attempts and to discourage law enforcement officers who are just trying to do their jobs. But misleading news reporting doesn't need to be the final word on the subject.

"One of the questions I've been asked constantly is, 'Can we do anything to prevent it from happening?' The answer is 'no.' If someone is of a mind to kill, they're going to do it," says David Huerta, chief of police, California State University in Fresno. "Right when you think it's not going to happen, it happens. You have to believe that you might be next. You have to plan for what you hope never happens."

EVALUATE YOUR CAMPUS-AGENCY RELATIONSHIP

» How familiar are you with the grounds of campuses in your area?

» How close is your relationship with local university police?

» Are you really cultivating close working relationships with campus law enforcement?

» Are the local sheriff's department, state police, and municipal agencies invited to become more involved with universities in your area?

Tags: Active Shooters, Virginia Tech Massacre, Columbine High Shooting


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