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Events in Blacksburg have resonance here

Tue., April 17, 2007

The shots fired Monday at Virginia Tech echoed on college campuses around the Inland Northwest.

Police officials and emergency planners asked what lessons might emerge from the deaths of at least 33 people, including the gunman. Parents called to check on their children and ask about campus safety. And some officials made a point of reminding people that campuses are typically safe places – though also open, public places that can be secured only to a degree.

“I would suggest that this incident is going to get a lot of people scared about a lot of issues and what can be done,” said Christopher Tapfer, emergency management coordinator for WSU. “I’m sure what’s going to happen in the next couple of months is a major dialogue on college campuses.”

Monday’s shootings were unprecedented, but gun violence isn’t unknown on regional campuses or among regional students.

A University of Idaho student, David Boss, was fatally shot in his apartment March 31 by a man police say also shot students at Boise State University and the University of Arizona. It was the second shooting death of a UI student in three years.

On April 2, a University of Washington researcher was shot to death in her office by a former boyfriend, who then killed himself.

In 1971, a man shot the caretaker and injured four others at St. Aloysius Church on the Gonzaga campus before being killed by police.

But even though such events are rare, in the years since the Columbine High School attack worries about school shootings have been on the minds of campus police officers everywhere.

“We have planned for it with the hope that it never happens,” said Dan Weaver, chief of the Moscow Police Department, which contracts with the University of Idaho to provide police services.

‘Always makes you think’

Universities in the region say they try to prepare students, faculty and staff to be safe in several ways: offering training for new students and security officials; teaching residence advisers extra skills and attempting to have someone in every building who can lead in an emergency; preparing response plans; and setting up communication structures for such events.

Events like Monday’s shootings always prompt a re-examination.

“It always makes you think: Are we prepared for this? What can we do to get better?” said Tim Walters, police chief at Eastern Washington University. “No matter what, it is always a work in progress.”

It seems likely that colleges will focus on communicating better with students during emergencies, given the criticism about the way Virginia Tech notified students.

Students there complained Monday that the school didn’t let them know what happened fast enough. News reports included accounts of students who knew nothing of the first shooting hours after it occurred or students who found out about it when they came across armed police officers on their way to classes.

Like Virginia Tech, Inland Northwest schools use e-mail as a primary tool when everyone on campus needs to be contacted. But if people don’t check their e-mail, that system is ineffective.

Tapfer said other methods might be needed, and there are multiple options, from cell phone or text messages to sirens or loudspeakers.

“You need to have as many ways as possible of trying to communicate and reach out,” he said.

That may be a lot more difficult than it sounds, police and university officials said. Trying to immediately reach thousands of students and staff, all on different schedules and in different buildings, can be a big job.

“It’s huge,” Weaver said. “It’s unbelievably difficult.”

‘Heart goes out’

In at least one case at EWU, the reaction to Monday’s shootings was personal.

Michael Westfall, the school’s vice president for advancement, moved to Cheney last fall from Blacksburg, Va., where the shootings occurred. He used to work at Virginia Tech, and his wife had worked in one of the buildings where the shootings occurred.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said Monday afternoon. “That’s a campus where I played basketball in the mornings, in the gym right next to the dorm where this happened. … My heart just goes out to them, and it could be people that I know. I don’t even know that yet.”

Colleges are unique communities and, for students in particular, campuses come to seem like home. So when something like Monday’s shooting occurs, it’s traumatic for a whole range of students, bystanders, emergency workers, parents and others, said Noelle Wiersma, an associate professor of psychology at Whitworth who specializes in post-traumatic stress in secondary victims in events like this.

Wiersma was an intern at West Virginia University years ago when a man shot himself in a campus residence hall.

For students, “It is like it’s occurring in a household,” she said.

After such events, students might develop “emotional numbing” and avoidance to help deal with their stress – something colleges should keep in mind as they attempt to provide counseling and other services after a trauma.

“If you cut off negative emotions, we all know that positive emotions go, too,” she said.


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