Lessons of Virginia Tech

Colleges are doing more to ensure that students know how to deal with safety issues

In Focus -- Education

September 21, 2007|By Larry Gordon | Larry Gordon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Discussions about social life, academic success and meal plans still dominate college freshmen orientations, but a more somber note also is being heard this season as new students lug their laptops and mini-fridges into dorm rooms.

In the wake of the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech in April, many colleges and universities are forcefully tackling issues of security and mental health.

Some are introducing new emergency notification systems or reinforcing procedures already in place. Many are more explicitly telling students how and when to seek mental health counseling for themselves and urging them to report a classmate who seems to need intervention, as the Virginia Tech gunman, Seung-hui Cho, apparently did before he killed 32 people and himself in the campus massacre.

"I think it's safe to say that the incident at Virginia Tech brought campus security issues to a higher priority level, and we actively talked about those issues," Amy Johnson, associate dean of students at the University of Southern California, said of the series of two-day orientations the Los Angeles school held during the summer.

UM, Towson alert students

Students at the University of Maryland College Park and Towson University can register to receive emergency text messages on their cell phones. In case of a campus emergency at Towson, the school's Web site says, text messages will be "sent instantly and simultaneously to all registered text-message capable mobile phones, Blackberrys, wireless PDAs, pagers, smart or satellite phones, and e-mail addresses." The messages will also "pop up" on the computer screen for anyone using Google, Yahoo or AOL as their home page, the Web site says.

At USC, more than 8,600 of the school's 40,000 students, professors and staffers have signed up to receive emergency notices since the new system, named "Trojans Alert," became available Aug. 1, according to campus police chief Carey Drayton. "It's one of those things we have and hope to never use," Drayton said, stressing it would be triggered only by serious events like a major earthquake or reports of a gunman on campus.

Still, the references to violence and how to avoid it were often inescapable as the school term started on campuses around the country, officials report.

"Many, many campuses are addressing this forthrightly," said Kevin Kruger, associate executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, a Washington group that focuses on student life. "There's been a lot of dialogue throughout the summer."

Yet, while those talks introduced a dark tone to orientation and freshman welcome weeks, they did not dominate, Kruger added. "College remains an exciting opportunity for young people. The excitement still exists. This is not changing the basic delivery of orientation," he said.

The Virginia Tech attack prompted the University of California, Los Angeles to add a new feature to its orientation sessions, which were offered 18 times throughout the summer to groups of 400 freshmen and transfer students. The new half-hour video presentation, called "How Bruins Handle It," detailed ways to cope with such stressful factors as academic pressure, homesickness, making friends and depression, according to Roxanne Neal, UCLA's orientation program director.

Mental health awareness

Discussions also focused on mental health resources on campus and how to watch for signs - such as not leaving dorm rooms - that a friend might be having psychological troubles. The goal was early prevention, Neal explained: "What to do in a more proactive sense, rather than focusing just on when something happens."

UCLA freshman Daysi Alonzo said she felt "very reassured" by seeing those videos and hearing about security measures on campus. But Alonso, an 18-year-old from South Gate, Calif., said she does not think many students dwell on the possibilities of danger. "We are more nervous about things like leaving home, being independent for the first time," she said. "Am I going to pass my classes? Will I have time to do all my reading?"

Contemporary parents already are much more involved in their children's college education than previous generations, and their worries about another Virginia Tech-like incident prompted discussions as they dropped off students at schools across the country, officials said.

Anticipating questions from parents about the Virginia Tech killings, University of California, Santa Barbara added new material to the handbook it gave out to more than 3,000 families during a series of two-day orientations during the summer. One section stated that the massacre showed "that universities are not ivory towers insulated from the concerns and dangers of the real world."

"We really wanted to put it all out here for them," said Debbie Fleming, UC Santa Barbara's associate dean of students. The campus sought to reinforce the philosophy that new students should be "proactive in safeguarding their own emotional and physical health."

Larry Gordon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

AT A GLANCE

In the wake of the April shootings at Virginia Tech, many coilleges an universities are forcefully tackling issues of security and mental health. Some are introducing new emergency notification systems or reinforcing procedures already in place. Many are more explicitly telling students how and when to seek mental health counseling for themselves and urging them to report a classmate who seems to need intervention.

Some campuses have instituted emergency text messaging systems that can send alerts to students' cell phones, Blackberrys, wireless PDAs, pagers and e-mail addresses

THE NUMBER

8,600 USC students, professors and staffers who have signed up to receive emergency notices.

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