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College reacts to Virginia shootings

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April 23, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — In response to last week’s shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech, in which a 23-year-old English major killed 32 people and injured at least a dozen more before turning the gun on himself, Middlebury College officials are evaluating how they could contain a rogue shooter.

Among the options being investigated is installing a siren that would fit into an overall plan to make campus-wide communications more effective.

College President Ronald Liebowitz sent a written statement to members of the college community on Tuesday, assuring them that his administration is taking steps to refine the way it prepares for emergencies.

“No campus anticipates the kind of terrible tragedy that occurred yesterday at Virginia Tech,” he wrote. “However, we are currently in the process of updating and clarifying the procedures we use to respond to a variety of campus crises and emergencies. A major goal of that process is to make sure that we are prepared to make and communicate decisions quickly in times of crisis.”

And in fact for months now, a small committee, including Dean of Planning John Emerson, has been engaged in a comprehensive review of the college’s emergency preparedness to be completed by next fall. Its most recent focus was what to do in the case of a pandemic, like avian flu.

Members of the college community would have 24 hours to evacuate campus, the committee decided, and dorms would be padlocked to prevent students from returning until the environment was deemed safe. The college has taken this issue so seriously, it now requires students to prepare and present evacuation plans in order to register for classes.

When news of the Virginia Tech shooting struck last week, it added a whole new dimension to the committee’s work. If someone were to open fire on campus, the committee decided, the most important issue would be communication. 

“The issue here is to make people aware that there is an emergency, that they need to be in the loop and they need to get the information,” Emerson said. “After that, you can get the word out instantly with e-mail messages.”

At Virginia Tech, two hours passed between the first two killings in a dorm and the next 31 in a German class. If students and faculty had been alerted to the situation immediately after the first incident, perhaps the second wouldn’t have happened, the committee agreed.

But college campuses are not contained like high schools, and students are not always sitting by their e-mail, Emerson noted. And though most Middlebury students have cell phones, the college keeps no record of those numbers.

So his committee has suggested installing a siren that could be heard all over campus.

“We ought to consider having some kind of very clear, audible warning system that’s a signal to the community to immediately check your voicemail and e-mail,” Emerson said.

They’ve also suggested collecting students’ cell phone numbers and using a technology that would allow the school to broadcast text messages to all students’ phones at once.

Emerson added that the college’s relationship with the Middlebury Police Department would be central to the handling of an emergency situation like Virginia Tech’s.

“Middlebury’s public safety officers do not wear firearms,” Emerson said. “We don’t have guns, we don’t have mace, nothing like that. In the event of a very significant emergency situation — along the lines of what is most recently in our consciousness with Virginia Tech — that is the most obvious reason to have access to local law enforcement.”

Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley has recently met with the college’s emergency planning committee to strengthen the relationship between town and college officers.

“Middlebury has long worked closely with the town’s police department,” Emerson said. “So we’re not starting from ground zero, but making sure that we have a clear understanding on how to work collaboratively when we need to, that we don’t have wasted time, wasted motion in responding to a serious incident.”

According to the college’s Assistant Director of Public Safety Larry Rooney, college officers have had direct radio communication with the town police for years.

“In an armed situation like this, we would rely on Middlebury police,” Rooney said. “The big thing for Public Safety would be communication. We would have to get the word out to faculty and students.”

Echoing Emerson, he stressed the most important step for the college now would be to strengthen those modes of communication.

“Given what we’ve learned and what we’ve seen (at Virginia Tech), those things need to be addressed and improved.”

In a follow-up statement to the community on Wednesday, Liebowitz added that the college is also committed to addressing the issues that lie at the core of violent acts like that of the Virginia Tech shooter’s: the emotional and psychological health of its students.

“These terrible events remind us of the importance of attentiveness to the well-being of every member of our community, and sensitivity to signs of trouble,” he wrote. “We will be talking further about the ways in which we identify and help students in crisis, recognizing that any response to threatening or dangerous behavior is ultimately less effective than trying to prevent it.”

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