Md. schools respond to Va. tragedy

Students and officials grieve and discuss security provisions

Reaction on campus

Virginia Tech Shootings

April 17, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Amid the reports of the Virginia Tech shooting rampage yesterday, administrators at Maryland universities and colleges began fine-tuning their emergency plans and re-examining security provisions.

Shocked students grappled with the tragedy by trying to locate friends who attend Virginia Tech. And across campuses, faculty, staff and students alike said their hearts went out to the victims and their families, with whom they expressed a kinship.

"I just feel so bad [for] all the families and what they must be going through," said Angela Bockino, a Loyola College freshman from Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

Today, Loyola's 12:10 p.m. mass will offer a remembrance to the shooting victims. Officials at the college, like many others around Maryland, reiterated to students that grief counseling is available, if they need it.

Around Loyola's manicured campus, some students said the tragedy ignited feelings they rarely feel in their cocooned campus environment: vulnerability. "Honestly, it makes you worry," said Bockino. "I don't feel safe."

But others noted the seemingly random nature of the violence and wondered aloud if anything could have stopped them.

"They said that you needed to swipe your ID card to get into the buildings," said Matt Lowrey, a freshman from Armonk, N.Y. "Same thing here. And here campus police is around all the time. I just really don't know, how much more secure could you get?"

Even as some area college police forces re-evaluated their contingency plans, officials acknowledged that what happened at Virginia Tech was inconceivable.

"The types of things that happened today at Virginia Tech defy logic, so it's difficult to plan for them," said Clint Coleman, a spokesman at Morgan State University. "In terms of what we can do to prevent it, all we can rely on is the things that we do day-in and day-out to protect students."

That includes the use of surveillance cameras and the university's 35 campus police officers' constant patrols by foot, bicycle and car.

If the university had to be locked down, officials would notify Morgan's 6,500 students by e-mail, phone call and, if necessary, in person, Coleman said.

Some observers were alarmed that Virginia Tech's administration did not notify students of the first shooting until two hours after it occurred. And when students received the message, it was via e-mail.

"There's no one way of communicating with students; you really have to beat the drum," Coleman said. "That means, sending out messengers to the places where students are. You cannot rely on e-mail. You cannot rely on voice mail systems."

At other universities, some campus police officers undergo training to handle violent situations.

The Maryland State Police has trained seven of the 68 campus police officers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore on the specifics of handling shootings, said Chief Cleveland A. Barnes, who heads the force.

Unlike some smaller private universities such as Johns Hopkins and Loyola, Barnes' officers carry handguns.

Barnes said being on an urban campus in a city that struggles to combat violent crime, the university police are used to vigilant patrols. Nevertheless, the Virginia Tech killings offer an opportunity to re-evaluate efforts, he said.

"This situation has raised questions as to whether there is anything additional we should be doing, or if there is anything additional that we can do," said Barnes. "Hopefully we can heighten our own awareness."

On some campuses, student resident assistants - student staff members living in dorms - receive preparation to deal with emergency situations.

"We've had extensive training, we've done drills and we all get full kits with megaphones," said Christopher Farrell, a Loyola junior from New York's Long Island, during a lunch break in the college's student center.

But Kathryn Sequino, a senior from Long Island, said training could only go so far.

"On the news, they said the R.A. at Virginia Tech walked down the hallway to inform people, but the guy shot the R.A.," she said.

At Johns Hopkins, a university that has had two student murders since 2004, news of the tragedy hit home, university spokesman Dennis O'Shea said.

"Our own university has suffered more than its share of tragedies in recent years," President William R. Brody wrote in a letter to the campus last night. "The members of our community affected by those tragedies remain constantly in our thoughts.

"So we know from bitter experience that Virginia Tech will never be exactly the same after today. But we also know that members of the community there will draw great strength from each other. They will support each other and console one another. They will emerge from this tragedy scarred but strong," Brody wrote.

The university has invested in new safety precautions in recent years, including installing emergency telephones linked to surveillance cameras and employing off-duty Baltimore city police officers in addition to the 54 campus police officers.

But it's difficult to prepare for the unimaginable, said O'Shea.

"You always try to do anything you can do, but you do that in the knowledge that there is no perfect system," O'Shea said. "We, just as much as the folks in Virginia Tech or any other institution anywhere, can be affected by this totally without warning."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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