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Colleges and universities put emphasis on planning for disasters, including active shooters 

Planning for the worst

click to enlarge Mourners at Virginia Tech in 2007. - FLICKR: ALKA3EN
  • Flickr: alka3en
  • Mourners at Virginia Tech in 2007.

On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, killed 32 people and wounded another 17 in two separate shootings.

Until June of this year, when Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in Orlando's Pulse nightclub, the Virginia Tech shooting was the deadliest by a single perpetrator in U.S. history.

Virginia Tech held sway over the country, leading to widespread grief and fear, changing gun laws, prompting deeper discussions on mental illness and leading many colleges and universities to take a second look at their emergency plans.

Back in 2007, institutions of higher education tended to have procedures for protecting their campus communities from natural disasters like fires, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes, and often some man-made accidents as well, like chemical spills. But most had dedicated less — or no — energy to drafting plans to deal with an active shooter rampaging through the campus.

That changed after Virginia Tech. Just as "duck and cover" was a part of common school instruction during the Cold War, in today's age of mass shootings, students now learn to "run, hide, fight."

What Cho did was an eyeopener for school leaders. The gunman, who had known mental health issues, fatally shot two students in a residence hall, walked away, changed his clothes, and ran errands, then calmly entered an academic hall. At some point, he chained shut the exits.

Police were dealing with the first shooting while Cho entered Norris Hall. The university, suspecting the first shooting was of a personal nature, hadn't instructed students, faculty and staff to prepare for an active shooter. In fact, students in Norris reported being simply curious when Cho peeked his head inside their classroom doors before beginning his massacre.

Once the shooting was underway, Cho's victims were largely at a loss to stop his killing spree. Some died trying to hold classroom doors closed, including Professor Liviu Librescu, an Israeli Holocaust survivor, whose body was riddled with bullets as he held his classroom door shut, allowing his students to climb out windows. All but one of the students in Room 204 survived due to his heroism.

Nevertheless, 30 people died in Norris Hall. Cho shot himself before police located him.

"A lot of the [college and university] emergency plans really stepped up after 9/11," UCCS Police Lt. Marc Pino says. "Using common terminology, working on regional resources, things like that — that sort of were identified as issues after 9/11 for responding to emergencies — I would say around that time is when we really stepped things up."

But asked when UCCS began preparing for an active-shooter scenario, Pino says, "Virginia Tech would be when we really started doing emphasis on active shooter, and also our campus developed a student response team as a response.

"Numerous people at Virginia Tech had dealings with the shooter, and no one was really talking together to find out that some larger issues were going on. So, the [UCCS] student response team was [formed] — very shortly after Virginia Tech — [and it] comprises the dean of students office, the chief of police and the head of the counseling center. We sort of field reports from faculty, staff, students, anybody that has a concern about a student. We can sort of reach them before it gets to a critical level."

The Independent spoke to representatives at UCCS, Colorado College and Pikes Peak Community College about their emergency plans. While plans and strategies differ, each campus has a plan, along with one or more employees in charge of preparing for emergencies.

Of the three schools, Colorado College, which has about 2,000 students, is the only one without its own police force. John Lauer, co-chair of CC's emergency preparedness group and the college's associate vice president for student life, explains that the school does have a single Colorado Springs police officer assigned to the campus, as well as a campus safety department. The safety officers — who carry no weapons — walk the campus and look for anything unusual. If a situation warrants it, they call police, with whom the college works closely. Campus safety officers can also take anonymous tips.

The campus does have an emergency plan, last updated in 2012, and a director of campus safety and emergency preparedness — Maggie Santos, a former Colorado Springs Police lieutenant. The plan will be updated soon.

"We're always focused on continuous improvement," Lauer says.

But, he adds, the college stresses that every person has to take responsibility for knowing how to respond, saying, "We're as prepared as every individual is prepared."

CC performs regular fire drills and has started doing active-shooter trainings with resident advisors, as well as sessions open to anyone, or upon request. Lauer says it's important not to drill too often because it can desensitize people in a real emergency.

The campus does contract with a company that sends emergency texts, emails and phone calls when needed to students, staff and faculty, as well as anyone else who wants to be notified. While not every classroom has a locking door, placards by doors give instructions on what to do in an emergency — such as barricade the door for an active shooter or go to the nearest marked shelter in case of tornado.

CC has cameras throughout campus and a loudspeaker on Palmer Hall. Lauer says the campus is considering replacing that speaker, as well as placing speakers on campus security cars for use in an emergency. Staff in residence halls also have megaphones.

Jim Barrentine is chief of police at PPCC, where he says he was hired five years ago to develop an emergency preparedness plan.

That plan is now the template for the state's community colleges.

At first, Barrentine says most folks at PPCC didn't know how to perform basic safety tasks, like using a fire extinguisher or helping a person in a wheelchair down stairs. He's focused on giving trainings and providing instructional videos for different emergency skills. The school also does lockdown drills for an active-shooter situation, as well as special training, and four or five tabletop exercises meant to mimic a real emergency.

Interestingly, of the three schools, PPCC is the only one with locks on all classroom doors. The college encourages locking those doors during class hours.

With three campuses and 20,000 students, PPCC faces unique challenges. The 18-person police department is distributed among the campuses, where they patrol during business hours. Barrentine has set up a system so that the campus community will be notified of an emergency immediately through texts, emails, landlines and a speaker system throughout the campus. Barrentine wants to add light boards for the deaf and buzzers for the blind, to ensure they are notified, and he's working on implementing a buddy system to ensure people with disabilities are cared for in an emergency.

He also has hotlines for anonymous tips.

Barrentine says the statewide system of community colleges is working to improve emergency preparedness. But he says PPCC is lucky because unlike many other schools, police are on the scene here.

"In an active shooter [situation]," he says, "security's going to run like everyone else."

Back in 2012, UCCS' emergency plans were tested. The Waldo Canyon Fire was raging nearby, and the campus suddenly became an unofficial evacuation site.

"We had the Air Force Academy cadets here in 2012, we also housed several hundred evacuees in our campus residence halls," UCCS spokesperson Tom Hutton says. "And then in 2013 [during the Black Forest Fire], we were an official Red Cross evacuation site and I think we had half a dozen people here, so we had more when we were an unofficial evacuation site."

Since UCCS is located on a wildland-urban interface, it not only has the normal risks of a university with around 11,300 students, but it also must be prepared for wildfire. Because of that, the university has done mitigation along its borders and, in summer months, UCCS police carry fire extinguishers with water in them, better for fighting wildfires. They also patrol the campus borders on off-road motorcycles.

Like the others, UCCS has an emergency notification system that hooks up to cell phones and landlines in classrooms. The university does not have a loudspeaker system or locks on every door, but emergency instructions near doors show how to barricade a door in emergencies and find marked tornado shelters. UCCS conducts general evacuation drills.

The UCCS police department, which has 21 officers and patrols the campus 24/7, has an intergovernmental agreement with Colorado Springs police to help each other in emergencies with set enforcement boundaries. Many will remember that UCCS Officer Garrett Swasey was killed last November when he responded to a mass shooting at Planned Parenthood. Just as he responded, CSPD would provide backup to UCCS officers in case of an active shooter on campus.

UCCS police do take tips (though anonymous tips must be made online) and say students are vigilant about filing reports of anything suspicious. Police Lt. Pino says he'll often get several calls within a few minutes about an unattended backpack, for instance. That's important, because it means students spot unusual circumstances and take them seriously.

"The reason why we have a very safe campus," he says, "is because we get those reports."

UCCS has emergency phones throughout campus, and police offer free escorts — no questions asked — to anyone requesting them. UCCS staff say they plan for any emergencies, and the university has an emergency manager and several offices that deal with emergency planning, including conducting regular tabletop exercises.

"I think we have a culture of working together as a university," Dean of Students Steve Linhart says, "whatever the situation."

  • Planning for the worst

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