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December 21, 2009

Practice Makes Perfect

A failed shooting attempt at the Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) suggests that there has been progress made in responding to “active shooter” incidents at our nation’s colleges and universities.

On December 8, student Jason Hamilton, 20, walked into a classroom at NVCC and fired two shots at his mathematics professor with a Marlin .30-06 bolt-action rifle he had bought the day before at Dick’s Sporting Goods. The teacher took cover under a desk after the first shot and was not injured. As Hamilton attempted to fire a third time, his gun jammed, and he discarded it. He then walked out of the classroom and sat down in a chair in the hallway.

It didn’t take long for authorities to find him. Prince William County police began arriving on the scene within two to three minutes of the shots. An emergency response team at NVCC’s offices in Annandale coordinated the response via phone and Internet and locked the Woodbridge campus down.

NVCC had created the job of Director of Emergency Planning a few months after the shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. Since that time, NVCC has trained faculty and staff in emergency response, purchased additional emergency notification equipment, and enhanced cooperation with local law enforcement. Just two days before the December 8 incident, NVCC’s campus police had conducted a mandatory, eight-hour training session where they practiced a scenario in which a student shot a teacher. “Everything that was done on Tuesday, we had practiced on Sunday,” said Cheryl Creed, NVCC’s acting Police Chief.

The county and campus police kept the campus locked down for approximately three hours after Hamilton was arrested in case there were other suspects still at large. “We erred on the side of caution and kept the lockdown until we could complete the search and evacuation,” said Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane.

Not everything went smoothly. It was more than 30 minutes before an announcement was made over classroom speakers informing students and faculty to shelter in place due to an emergency. As a result, some rushed out of the building after shots were fired in violation of the school’s emergency policy. Interestingly, students made up for some of these communication mishaps by sharing information through text messages.

In any case, it was a vast improvement over the Virginia Tech response, where the administration never ordered a campus shutdown and delayed notifying students and faculty after the first two victims were shot and killed in West Ambler Johnston Hall.

Perhaps in part because of improving emergency preparedness, Colorado State University’s Board of Governors recently voted unanimously to overturn the school’s policy allowing concealed handguns on its two campuses. “This makes us fairly unusual,” said Pueblo Campus President Joe Garcia, “as most institutions of higher education have a complete concealed weapons ban.”

Garcia is right. Utah’s public colleges and universities and Blue Ridge Community College in Virginia are now the only schools in America (out or more than 4,300 colleges and universities in the United States) that allow concealed handguns on campus.

Colorado State University is also now aligned with the policy of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA), which has stated, “There is no credible evidence to suggest that the presence of students carrying concealed weapons would reduce violence on our college campuses” and called on public policy makers to “weigh heavily the…unintended consequences of any proposals to allow college students and any other persons to carry concealed weapons on campus.” IACLEA is instead “working with other campus public safety stakeholders to provide and promote campus crime prevention training programs, as well as to develop strategies and programs to enhance emergency preparedness.”

It is good to see that such efforts are bearing fruit. While the Woodbridge incident could have been far worse-particularly if Hamilton had used a more dangerous firearm like an assault rifle-law enforcement deserves credit for taking campus safety seriously and demonstrating results.

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