Eugene Weekly : News : 10.09.08

Guns on Campus
School shootings are rare, but UO has had one
by Joseph A. Lieberman

With these words, Seung-Hui Cho conveniently laid the blame for mass murder upon his victims: You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today … Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off. 

But his diatribe could also be seen as a challenge to any campus that today still remains unprepared for this degree of savagery. Although the events at Virginia Tech taught a terrible lesson, only 10 months later, 27-year-old Stephen Kazmierczak murdered five students and wounded 16 before committing suicide at Northern Illinois University.

Could it happen here? It already has. Back on Veteran’s Day, 1984, UO dropout Michael Feher, in camouflage clothing and black face paint, began firing randomly at Autzen Stadium, killing a former Olympic sprinter. A college wrestler was also wounded before Feher committed suicide. Fifteen years later, the massacre at Thurston High in Springfield left a permanent scar upon this community’s sense of well-being.

This summer, Congress passed a new Higher Education Law that requires every college in the U.S. to “immediately notify” students and staff upon confirmation of a significant emergency on campus. That directive was inspired partly by the fact that some officials at Virginia Tech had locked down their own offices at least 20 minutes prior to Cho bursting into Norris Hall and slaying 32 people, and before a campus-wide alert was issued about his first two killings at a dorm. Victims’ families were outraged.

The UO began its planning months before Virginia Tech. Andre Le Duc, Director of UO’s Emergency Management Program, reported, “Over the past three years, increasing attention has been paid to how colleges and universities communicate with students, faculty, staff, parents and first responders in the event of an emergency. … Components of our system include mass notifications, Web page and email alerts, an outdoor alert system, radio and local media, and first responder training.”

A year ago, Boston University was the first college in the nation to mandate that students had to sign up for text message alerts before they would be allowed to register. For now, the UO is using a more gently persuasive method. “Each time a student or faculty member signs into DuckWeb,” Le Duc said, “they get a pop-up reminder suggesting that they register.” (At press time, no pop-up appeared when UO students interning at the EW logged in to DuckWeb, though a reminder written in light grey text is present on the screen beneath the “personal information” option.)

UO Interim Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones focuses on a team approach interfacing with faculty, counseling, mental health services and public safety. “What were formerly ad hoc meetings as situations arose have now become weekly conferences in which our team considers any circumstance that is causing concern, such as a student who may be behaving erratically in class or is writing disturbing messages in essays. We’ve noted an increased demand for mental health services, but most students demonstrate adequate self-care,” she says.

According to a 2008 Reader’s Digest survey of 135 colleges, more than 90 percent had installed mass notification systems, half had plans for lockdowns and 48 percent authorized use of firearms by campus police.

Some students unnerved by past shootings think that having more weapons
is the solution. Nationwide, more than 30,000 members of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus support the right for licensed holders to carry concealed handguns at colleges. Eleven colleges, nine Utah public universities and Colorado State University currently allow this.

A psychology major and SCCC fan in Harrisonburg, Va., reasoned, “Concealed carry is one of the few ways to guarantee that the weapons are in the hands of quali-fied and stable individuals.” However, the qualifications to earn a concealed handgun permit in most states are laughably simple: Pass a basic firearm safety course and have no criminal record. This test would have qualified both Cho and Kazmierczak to legally carry concealed guns at, for example, Colorado State.

Lockdowns are another subject that is still in flux. “If the worst should happen,” Le Duc says, “locking down a large campus like UO may not be possible. The layout is very different from K-12 schools. Any lockdown would have to be done building by building, short of extremely expensive high-tech solutions. We prefer to take a holistic approach to campus safety.” 

In truth, the chance of being killed at an educational institution in America is estimated at one in two million. The violent crime rate off campus is generally eight times greater than on campus. Nevertheless, while there’s no need to succumb to fear, school administrators say it’s still prudent to have that emergency/contingency plan, just in case.


Freelance writer Joseph Lieberman of Eugene is author of School Shootings — What Every Parent and Educator Needs to Know to Protect Our Children (Citadel Books, September 2008).



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