When visiting my parents this weekend we heard the horrific news of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. This hit home for us for two main reasons: one, I was a resident advisor myself in college and the tale of the RA who stepped in to try to help the situation at the dorm and got shot for his trouble is one that all RA’s wonder if they will have to face and two, I live in Virginia now and it seems like almost everyone in this state knows someone who either attends or used to attend VA Tech. As the news coverage continued throughout the day the debate began at our house…should the school have done more to prevent the shootings?
My stepfather felt that the school should have had metal detectors in all the buildings and that if the gunman had somehow still managed the shooting at the residence hall then the campus should have been completely locked down so that no students were in the academic buildings to be killed later that morning. My mother felt that to expect anyone to predict this situation was unrealistic and people are too quick to try to blame everyone but the person who should be blamed…the shooter. My thoughts? They are both right to a certain degree, however, we do not live in a perfect world and issues like this are never black and white.
Concerning the placing of blame on the school officials, the police and other administraton, I think that this is completely normal in this type of situation and should not be considered a sign of a “blame-happy” society. The bottom line is that when a tragedy such as this occurs people need someone to vent their anger at. It is almost impossible for most of us to understand the kind of twisted anger that can spur someone to act as the gunman did. By killing himself after committing these atrocities he escaped the public outcry and anger that he most certainly would have felt had he been apprehended. With him dead, people need someone else to focus their anger on. Once the initial shock and grief settles I think that the majority of people will realize that the school administration and police did everything that they thought would help at the time. They certainly did not expect a tragedy of this magnitude…who would?
As for the security issues, that is a bit more complicated. I attended a state school in New Jersey, smaller (as most are in that state) than VA Tech, but still a reasonable comparison. It has only been 5 years since I left that school and I doubt that too much has changed. Working as a resident advisor you get a bit more insight into the workings of campus security and the decision-making process that goes along with the balance of trying to keep a campus safe without looking like they expect something to happen. After all we cannot forget that universities are businesses too and they need to make money. If they do not have students paying tuition, then they have no budget for safety measures. When I attended college there were ongoing debates about whether or not the campus police (who were fully recognized policemen who had attended and graduated from the police academy) should be allowed to carry guns, whether there should be metal detectors in buildings and whether there should be surveillance cameras in dorm common areas. At the time that I left the institution, these issues were all still being debated. It seems like it should be an obvious answer, right? After all, police carry guns for their protection and ours and they are trained to do so safely. Metal detectors keep weapons out of buildings and cameras can help to identify troublemakers if a situation arises and show if someone manages to sneak into a building where they are not permitted. Where is the problem?
The easiest place to start is with the metal detectors. This is a very simple issue of advertising. If potential students and parents attend a school open house and tour the campus and see metal detectors, they might assume that there have been incidents which prompted the installation of these devices. This could lead them to think that the school is unsafe and perhaps not a good choice for them. This could lead to lower enrollment at the school, which means they lose money. It is a business, after all. The cameras are a similar, but slightly different animal. The issue of wanting to appear as though there is no need for such measures is still valid, however another issue is added in as well…personal privacy. Each time that this issue was brought up on our campus it was immediately brought down by the number of students who felt that cameras such as these would be an invasion of privacy. After all, the dorms are their homes. There is an expectation of privacy in your home. The fact that they would only be in the public areas was compared to someone coming in and installing cameras in your living room and justifying it by saying that they would not be in your bedroom. Students did not want their daily activities monitored, even if it meant that the next time that a fight broke out there would be clear documentation of who was and was not involved.
The most hotly debated issue regarding our campus security was the question of the police carrying firearms. The main reason for this debate…racism. After all, New Jersey has a very diverse population. The campuses of most state schools are located near inner city areas and many students felt that there was too much risk that a campus policeman would see a situation happening with several students of differing races and make a snap judgement based on preconceived stereotypes. The risk of having a policeman fire without due cause on an african-american student was determined to be greater than the risk to the police and student body should a situation arise with an armed attacker on campus which would require the police to send for armed back-up which could take 10 minutes or more. This is a sad comment on our society, much moreso than the issue of people in the aftermath of the VA Tech massacre placing blame on the school administration. I do not know what the attitude was towards the police on the VA Tech campus, but I do know that a situation similar to the initial shooting in the residence hall took place in my dorm when I was attending school and it could very easily have ended in violence and death, long before our campus police would have been able to determine that the situation called for someone to bring them a firearm. We got lucky…that time.
It is easy to sit at home and comment on the fact that the campus authorities and local police might have been able to prevent this tragedy if they had acted differently. We have much more information than they had at the time and we are not dealing with other politics and policies that they have to consider. It is not a simple act to lockdown a college campus. Students that age are naturally curious and if told to remain indoors are just as likely to venture outside just to see what is going on. After all, at 19 or 20 who is thinking about the possibility that they could actually die? That is something that happens to other people…never to them, never to people that they know…
It is my hope that colleges and universities around the country will take this tragedy and use it as an impetus to reconsider their own safety protocols, and I believe that they will do so. Perhaps with the combined efforts of so many people they will be able to find ways to make the campuses more safe, while still seeming welcoming. Perhaps new procedures will be put into place for evaluating students after teachers express concern about their psychological welfare. Perhaps out of tragedy, can come enlightenment and then maybe there will be some understanding and acceptance from the people whose lives have been forever altered by this horrific event.