Emergency Preparedness Top-of Mind for Campus Public Safety
By Camille Dodson
With the start of a new school year, most students are focusing on reuniting with friends, figuring out their schedules, and enjoying the last warm days of the season. The last thing on their minds may be their safety.
Mass shootings have found their way to the front page at an alarming rate in recent weeks, most noticeably with the movie theater shooting in Colorado. Safety, it seems, is no longer a promise in public places, and colleges are no exception.
Champlain College has a Public Safety department located in Skiff Hall, consisting of 12 officers, who provide service 24 hours a day. Their duties include providing safety counseling to incoming first-years, making presentations throughout the year to students living on campus, holding self defense classes, patrolling the campus grounds and surrounding area, and conducting fire and safety inspections in dorm rooms.
Rich Long is the Head of Public safety and has worked at Champlain College since 2007. The day he was hired also happened to be the day that Virginia Tech was hit with the tragic shooting that left students and faculty dead. That day, Long gave his two weeks notice at the Burlington Police Department and began the lofty task of constructing a new public safety team, and designing an emergency response plan, which addressed what should be done in the event of an emergency, should it be a fire, a gas explosion or the worst-case scenario: a shooter.
“Thinking about it keeps me up at night,” Long confessed. Part of his plan is using the campus alert system, a computer-based alert that goes out to all staff and students who have registered. Each first-year is instructed at their orientation on how to sign up for the alerts. From the student portal on My.Champlain.edu, there is a link to opt in to the system and provide both a phone number and email. Should a situation arise, Long can enter the alert into his computer and instantly send it around campus.
The alert comes as a voice message alerting the recipient of the situation and how they should react. Sometimes they will be told to stay put; other times, they could be told to report somewhere on campus.
Once a threat is reported, Long and his team would spring into action. In addition to the alert that goes out to the student body, another alert would reach a small group of staff who are considered key to dealing with and solving the problem. This includes Champlain President Finney and his advisors. While Long and his team would devise a plan to resolve the issue, the president and his team would await instructions and follow Public Safety’s lead.
“We stay there until the problem is resolved,” Long explained.
As for the students, Long says that they typically know how to respond in the face of emergency. From countless drills in high school, they know to lock the door, turn off the lights, and stay away from windows. Long says it is usually the faculty who need guidance.
Emily Gray ’13 said she was unaware of the campus alert system, but felt that she would know how to react in the face of emergency.
“As a transfer student, it was never brought to my attention, but bringing it up might make people nervous,” Gray said.
First-year Victoria Cunningham remembered being told about the alert system at orientation, but never signed up. Like Gray, she has heard little mentioned about emergency preparation while at Champlain.
In response to the recent events involving shootings, one university in Colorado, CU Boulder, will now allow students with carry permits to bring firearms on campus, with the exception of dormitories. CU Boulder is now one of 130 colleges to allow carrying some form of weaponry in on campus, which aims to give students and faculty the means for self-defense.
Long thinks that allowing students or faculty to carry weapons is not the right approach. As a former lieutenant with the Burlington Police Department, he knows how extensive the training process for correctly using a firearm can be. Allowing anyone without this training to operate a gun leaves too much margin for error. Having guns on campus means they could get into the hands of people who are untrained.
“Inviting that to a campus is a bad idea,” Long said.
The Los Angeles Times published story in response to the Colorado shootings suggesting how colleges can attempt to target potentially threatening students. The psychiatrist who was seeing James E. Holmes, the man responsible for the movie theater shootings, says that she warned the Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment team at the University of Colorado at Denver, where Holmes was a student, about her concerns, but that no action was taken. The National Behavioral Intervention team provides information, training, and implementation to colleges to help understand what should be done in a similar situation. Since the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, more and more colleges have made efforts to create a threat assessment team, as well as utilize the national team. The efforts to highlight concerns about a specific person is plagued by legalities and the limits to which information can be shared.
At Champlain College, there is a “dangerous and disruptive student” policy which addresses what should be done if a student presents a possible threat to the college community. As stated in the Student Handbook, “When a student’s behavior constitutes a serious disruption or danger to the living and learning environment that the College seeks to create, the College may respond in a number of ways, ranging from providing mental health support to separating the student from the institution, if necessary.”
Luke Lewis is a counselor at the Champlain Counseling Center and further explained the college’s policy when dealing with potentially dangerous students. Although students sign a confidentiality agreement upon their first counseling session, they also acknowledge the limits. That means that if a student discloses thoughts of hurting themselves or others, confidentiality is not guaranteed.
“We want to stop them from doing something they would regret,” Lewis said. “No one wants to carry out an act like that.”
If a student makes a direct and credible threat against another student, or any person for that matter, the counselor is required to alert authorities. Additionally, because of legislature passed in 1969 in the Tarasoff case, a victim of such a threat must also be notified. Because most threats will turn out to be just that – an empty promise with no actual intention of causing harm – the counseling staff consults among themselves before deciding if a student poses an immediate danger to themselves or others.
“You never want to make that decision in isolation,” Lewis explained. If the student does not directly say that they wish to harm themselves or others, there is little that the counselor can do. At that point, it becomes an issue of protecting the students’ rights versus protecting the community.
To date, there have been no incidents of shootings or weapon wielding at Champlain. Information about the Counseling Department, Public Safety, and the Emergency Response System is in the student handbook, as well as on the Champlain website. A member of public safety and a member of the counseling team are available 24 hours a day by calling (802) 865-6465.