In February, a man carrying a fake assault weapon burst into an American foreign policy class at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. The seven unsuspecting students, along with a stunned professor who later remarked that he was “prepared to die at that moment,” were held hostage for 10 minutes. During that time, the gunman said he would kill at least one of them.
The class survived because the gunman was a volunteer, part of an exercise intended to test the university’s system for responding to a possible campus attack. The university had alerted its students and faculty with e-mail and text messages, but not everyone read them. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the simulation — at least physically.
In the year since the shooting at Virginia Tech last April 16, American colleges have been under pressure, from worried parents as well as from the news media, to beef up campus security. Like Elizabeth City State, many schools have overreacted by instituting safety measures of questionable effectiveness. Safety officials are quick to shut down classes, as happened recently at California State University, Dominguez Hills, when an R.O.T.C. student with a drill rifle was mistaken for an assailant toting an automatic weapon. Instead of making campuses safer, we are fostering an unwarranted and unhealthy level of fear.
An article in Newsweek’s “College Guide” last fall advised families on how to tell whether a university is safe, and earlier this year Readers’ Digest graded 135 colleges nationwide on their safety precautions — notification systems, campus lockdown plans, armed security and the like. A bill in Congress, too, pushes the security agenda by proposing that universities be required to issue campus alerts within 30 minutes of a reported emergency.
The vast majority of institutions in the Readers’ Digest survey have in place security measures that not long ago would have been considered unnecessary, if not absurd. All but six of the schools surveyed have installed mass notification systems; more than half have lockdown plans; and more than 40 percent have authorized their campus police officers to carry firearms.
Although a popular response, campus-wide notification systems, ranging from low-tech sirens to text-message alerts on cellphones, are not necessarily a reliable way to protect students. An emergency siren could signal anything from a fire to gunfire. Text alerts would fail to reach a packed lecture hall if the instructor requires students to turn off their cellphones.
Anxious parents have been particularly keen on lockdowns, plans to seal off buildings manually or electronically to prevent a gunman from moving from place to place. The lockdown may do little to prevent casualties, however: Almost all college shootings have taken place in one location — in just one building, if not just one classroom. And a lockdown introduces dangers of its own. The same locks that bar a gunman from entering classrooms and dorms can also prevent potential victims from escaping into a locked building if they are being chased by a gunman.
Perhaps the most important change inspired by Virginia Tech is a renewed emphasis on mental health services. And given that there are many times more suicides on campus than homicides, this could benefit countless students, the vast majority of whom pose no danger to others. Over the past year, one-third of campus counseling centers have added staff members, including psychiatrists, and 15 percent of campus counseling centers have received larger budgets.
But this approach, too, may fail to identify and stop a violent student. Thousands of college students are depressed or even suicidal, but there is no consistent profile of a person who turns from disappointment and frustration to violent rage.
Colleges are not helpless in preventing and responding to campus shootings. Certain measures clearly make sense. Every university should have a well-trained and sufficiently large security force. Faculty and staff members should be trained to handle volatile students and situations. And it pays to conduct emergency preparedness drills, but not ones that involve students nor ones that are staged when classes are in session.
By overreacting to Virginia Tech, not only are college administrators instituting security measures that may well prove ineffective, but they are also undermining the carefree atmosphere of campus life. They chance making students feel like walking targets.
I especially worry that the anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings will mean endless replaying of video images of that campus under siege. With last year’s shooting there, and the Valentine’s Day massacre at Northern Illinois University, the violence on campuses feels like a conflagration. There is no need to stoke the flames.