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LA Times

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Vigils, vigilance on campuses

Colleges examine their procedures for violent threats while students, parents reach out with comfort and questions.
By Richard C. Paddock and Tami Abdollah
Times Staff Writers

April 17, 2007

University officials in California and across the nation, shocked by Monday's massacre at Virginia Tech, said they would review emergency procedures for handling threatening incidents on their campuses.

Some campus counseling centers saw an increase in students seeking help, and some anxious parents contacted universities to express concern — even though for many, the assault occurred 3,000 miles away. Still other parents called their children to say they loved them.

From UC Santa Barbara to Georgetown University, students planned to gather Monday evening for candlelight vigils or prayer services. "Incidents such as these are as tragic as they are rare on American college campuses," said American Council on Education President David Ward. "Unfortunately it seems no workplace or community institution is immune from random gun violence — whether it is a local school, small business, shopping mall or place of worship."

The record death toll — and uncertainty over whether a killer eluded police for two hours after the first killing — prompted questions and anxiety among students and parents.

"All of our campuses will be reviewing again their safety programs and procedures in light of today's events, and as we learn more about the specific circumstances of the Virginia Tech shootings, we will apply those lessons as well," said University of California President Robert Dynes. "We take these issues extremely seriously."

In California, university police officials said most major campuses had adopted rapidresponse measures and armed campus police with more powerful weapons after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.

Throughout the UC system, for example, police are equipped with automatic rifles and devices to breach doors, and are trained to deploy quickly without waiting for an outside SWAT team, said UCLA Police Chief Karl Ross, who also is police coordinator for the 10-campus system.

"Prior to Columbine it was gather the forces, wait and see, then we'll go after them," said Philip Mullendore, executive director for the California College and University Police Chiefs Assn. "Now, post-Columbine, the tactic is to try and immediately neutralize the shooter. We go after the person immediately with whatever resources we have."

Mullendore said that homicides on campuses are unusual, which might explain why some administrators are lax in preparing for violent emergencies.

"If I had my way as security director or police chief, I'd have fences with one point of entrance or one point of exit; you wouldn't get in without an ID or badge, and everyone would wear name tags," said Mullendore, who was police chief at Pasadena City College for 22 years. "[But] somewhere in between you need to reach a balance; it's not practical to make a college like a prison, but in the end you need to have some controls."

The trick, experts say, is balancing competing needs.

"The problem with campuses is all of them are open, idyllic places, and it's counterintuitive to the mission of a campus to have stringent security measures," Mullendore said.

Dawson College in Montreal began improving the communication systems in classrooms and hallways after a gunman killed one student and injured 19 people before committing suicide in September.

But Donna Varrica, college spokeswoman, said Dawson was not willing to consider more extreme measures, such as installing metal detectors. "If you have a complete lockdown and have to show identification to get in or have security passes, that might be effective," she said, "but it would change fundamentally what this school is about."

Also, security measures have limits. At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, measures such as access cards did not stop a former student's attack in 2003 that killed one person and injured 10.

On Monday, as news of the Virginia tragedy spread, some parents of college-age children began dialing cell phones.

"My mom called to tell me she loved me," said Tulula Butters, 18, a freshman theater major at USC from Palm Springs. "She said, 'I'm glad you're safe.' "

Charlotte Korchak, 19, a sophomore from Los Angeles majoring in history at USC, said her mother called immediately after word of the shooting and broke the news to her. "She wanted to be reassured that it wouldn't happen at our school," she said.

Some parents called the colleges.

Lt. Tom Gehrls said Cal State Fullerton received phone calls from more than a dozen concerned parents who wanted to know what kind of precautions the university had in place.

Although "it happened across country, if you've got a son or a daughter [on campus], your stress level is going way up," he said. One of the nation's earliest university shootings occurred at Cal State Fullerton in 1976, when a custodian killed seven people in the campus library.

Elsewhere, some worried parents called other parents.

"There's outrage, there's fear, there's concern by most of the people I've communicated with that this has happened," said Brian Forb of North Hollywood, the father of a freshman at New York University. Forb shared his concerns via e-mail with about half a dozen friends who also have children at college. The running theme was "a feeling of not being safe, and that children are not safe, and that people have access to these kinds of weapons," Forb said.

Colleges across the country, meanwhile, tried to update or calm their students and staff. "You are encouraged to contact Human Resources or the Office of the Dean of Students if you need assistance in understanding and coping with today's events," said an e-mail sent to students at Pitzer College in Claremont.

Officials at George Washington University in Washington sent out an e-mail as well, pointing out that "GW's University Police Department is on heightened alert. Students, faculty, and staff are asked to exercise appropriate caution and report any suspicious action to University Police."

Campus security experts also tried to reassure parents and the public, noting that college crime rates are generally lower than in communities of comparable size.

"The shootings that occur on campuses are aberrations, they're horrific aberrations," Mullendore said, "and we get lulled into a false sense of security on campus because it's so infrequent. Your campus is probably the safest place in town."


Times staff writers Tony Barboza, Seema Mehta and Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times

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