How safe are our campuses?

It’s been a month since a deranged student killed 33 people, including himself, at Virginia Tech, and in that time universities and colleges all across the country have been examining their security systems and asking themselves: What will we do if something like that happens on our campus? And how can we do a better job of preventing it in the first place?

Nobody at Chico State feels the urgency of the security issue more than Eric Reichel, the campus’ police chief. He and his small staff would be on the front line in the event someone decided to start shooting up the place.

“In extremely serious situations our primary goal is preventing people from getting hurt,” Reichel said.

Campuses such as Chico State and Butte College have mandated emergency plans devised by police experts for dealing with “active-shooter incidents.” At Chico State, instead of sending negotiators, the police’s immediate objective will be to eliminate the shooter.

Virginia Tech prompted more training for such vital situations, said Michael Miller, director of Facilities Planning & Management at Butte College. Real-life simulations and extra training for police officers and university staff are already being executed at Butte.

Miller said the 83 police cadets graduating from the college’s Police Academy this year will have additional active-shooter training, as will police and sheriff’s departments in the surrounding counties.

Chico State is developing a way to use phones as a warning system.

“The one thing most students have in common is their cell phones,” explained university spokesman Joe Wills. “We can’t ring every student at this time, but we are working toward that capability.”

Indeed, the university will use a number of common tools to alert students of a dangerous situation: mass e-mails, postings on Web pages, messages on school phones. The media also will be alerted, said Wills.

In addition, both Chico State and Butte College are crafting plans to assign managers in every building who are responsible for informing everyone else in the building of an emergency. Staff at both campuses will be trained in how to lead others in a threatening atmosphere, Miller said.

The schools’ safety efforts are commendable, but knowing how to avoid a dangerous situation is just as important as knowing how to handle it.

As the story of Seung-Hui Cho so painfully documents, Virginia Tech was not fully prepared to deal with such a troubled and dangerous soul.

The problem, of course, is that there are many troubled students on every college campus, but extremely few of them commit violent acts. As Paul Morones, associate director of Chico State’s Counseling Center, points out, there is a fine line between someone who is upset and someone who is mentally disturbed.

Wills agrees: “The vast majority of people with some type of mental illness are not a threat.”

The last thing the police and campus administration want to do is promote panic or profiling, Reichel said—"we have to look at people’s actions and behaviors, not their characteristics.”

The Counseling Center offers free, confidential counseling to any student and for any reason. Following the Virginia Tech massacre, the Chico center created small informational cards with examples of dangerous behaviors and the correct actions one should take in response.

If people have concerns about themselves or others, Morones encourages them to come in and speak with a counselor about the person’s behavior. Trained professionals can assess if the person warrants police assistance and/or hospitalization.

While Wills is not opposed to a list of potential warning signs that could help identify threatening students, he said this list must be compiled by trained professionals and be sensitive to people’s lifestyle choices.

The university can remove a student from campus if he or she is found to be an eminent threat, but it’s not a step to be taken lightly. “We try to maintain a balance between human rights and student safety,” Wills explained.

It’s also important to maintain perspective. As horrible as they are, incidents such as the one at Virginia Tech are extremely rare. Statistically, students are much more likely to be injured or killed crossing the street or driving to the store.

On the other hand, it’s important to be prepared for all eventualities. Miller said he is proud of the efforts made on both local campuses to ensure safety and swift action.

Reichel agrees: “Our current policies and training and the changes to be made in the future will help us be proactive in an active-shooter incident, rather than reactive.”