• December 20, 2014
  • Welcome!
    Welcome | (Logout)
  • RSS
  • Contact
  • Archives
  • About

Alligator

A year later, UF still learning from Virginia Tech massacre

Print
Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 12:00 am

A year ago today, we were all Hokies.

A student-turned-gunman stormed the campus of Virginia Tech and killed 30 fellow students and two professors last April, marking the deadliest shooting in American history.

Since that day, UF has stepped up its mental-health services, emergency notifications and police training to prevent a similar tragedy.

Virginia Tech's darkest hour may serve as the most important lesson on emergency preparedness UF will ever receive.

Warning Signs

After media reports revealed that Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, had a troubled past, UF and other universities took a hard look at their mental-health programs, asking a tough question: Could the Virginia Tech tragedy have been prevented if action had been taken to treat the student before he became a killer?

During his first year at Virginia Tech, Cho, a 23-year-old English major, wrote essays about suicide, murder and revenge for his classes.

His depictions made fellow students uncomfortable, and he was approached by a few of his teachers after class.

But that didn't stop him from acting on his sinister thoughts on April 16, 2007.

Sherry Benton, director of UF's Counseling Center, said she worries that because shootings at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech involved killers with disturbed pasts, people may become afraid of students with mental-health problems.

"The vast overwhelming majority of people who struggle with some kind of mental-health problem have no history of violence and will never be violent," Benton said.

Still, there are students who pose a danger on any campus every year. Benton said students have been removed from UF for showing potential for violence, but arrangements for treatment are usually made between UF and the student.

Gene Zdziarski, UF dean of students, said no students have been asked to withdraw for demonstrating at-risk behavior for several years.

He said UF has had a process of identifying troubled students since before the Virginia Tech massacre, but the shooting put UF in a "seize the moment" mentality to empower professors.

Last fall, UF faculty received guidance on how to recognize troubled students and make referrals to counseling, and Zdziarski said there has been an increase in calls made to UF and the University Police Department within the past year about suspicious behavior.

Even with certain precautions, Benton said UF is vulnerable because not everyone with a mental-health problem is diagnosed.

"If we could identify who might be violent, it would make our life easier," Benton said.

The UF Counseling Center and Student Health Care Center keep confidential records of student patients, but they don't have records of treatment history for transfer students.

State and federal confidentiality laws present a snag in the desire of the Florida Board of Governors, the State University System's highest governing body, to have mental-health histories of transfers automatically sent to UF.

Benton said state interest to obtain these records is troubling because students could be haunted by past problems in admissions.

"Are we going to turn someone down because they've ever had a mental health problem?" Benton asked.

Tico Perez, chairman of the board's Emergency Management and Campus Safety Task Force, said he does not believe the board's goal is to let the records influence admission decisions.

Preventing campus violence is a main concern of the board, but finding state money to keep counselor-to-student ratios manageable in this budget year is unlikely.

Ten of Florida's 11 public universities need more counselors, according to a report from the task force.

UF, which staffs 31 full-time counselors, needs three more to meet the recommended counselor-to-student ratio from the International Association of Counseling Services - one per 1,500 students.

The center is expecting to lose two counselors this year due to budget cuts, Benton said.

Both the UF Counseling Center and the Student Health Care Center are completely full all the time, she said. Reducing counselors on staff would create a waiting list for those seeking help.

But it's not all bad. Wayne Griffin, associate director of the center, said UF's counseling-center needs are not as severe as others in the state, some of which need 22 counselors to meet the proportion.

"We're resource-rich compared to some of them," Griffin said.

Reaching the Masses

Virginia Tech administrators received criticism from students, parents and the media for not sending warnings about Cho's first two fatalities of the day until an e-mail was sent two hours later.

By then it was too late. Cho had already made his way to Norris Hall, where 30 students and professors lived their final day.

In an effort not to let history repeat itself, universities across the country rushed to get the latest emergency-alert technology on their sides in case copycat attackers decided to act.

Most of UF's emergency-notification methods have been around for a few years, mainly to warn students of hurricanes, said Steve Orlando, UF spokesman.

Since the massacre, UF expanded its efforts by using tools students use most during the day, such as text messages.

UF will run a test of its emergency-notification system Friday, sending alerts via e-mail, text-messaging, an automated telephone-notification system and updates on its home page.

The test will mark the first time all systems have been tested simultaneously.

UF's e-mail system has between 70,000 and 80,000 people on its list, said Marc Hoit, UF's interim chief information officer.

E-mail isn't intended to be the first line of communication from UF but will work to warn students and faculty about risks coming within hours, Hoit said.

He said he expects the Friday message to take two hours to filter to all its recipients.

Commonly called a reverse-911 call, the automated-telephone-message system dials landlines of offices and classrooms and leaves a message recorded by UPD detailing how to act. UPD Chief Linda Stump said the system is the quickest method to get the word out in a crisis.

In an effort to improve alert systems and police forces across the state, the Board of Governors approved a $2 million plan in March for UF to install Internet-based loudspeakers in classrooms, labs and outdoor locations on campus. Pending approval from the Legislature, UF expects to have the system in place sometime this year, Orlando said.

The most sophisticated option in UF's alert toolbox is the text-messaging plan, Hoit said.

Unlike other universities, which pay text-messaging providers between $1 to $4 per enrolled student, UF's contract with Mobile Campus is complimentary, Orlando said.

UF first tested its text-messaging system in January. Of about 44,000 students, staff and faculty on the plan at the time, about 42,000 received the message. The plan now has 52,650 numbers, Orlando said.

UF officials deemed the January test a success, but some question whether it would be effective in a real emergency.

After all, it took nine minutes for Cho to gun down 30 students and faculty members, but it took about 50 minutes for UF's test message to reach most inboxes.

Hoit said improvements to speed up UF's system have been made, but getting a text message to more than 50,000 people using a variety of service providers in under a half-hour is unrealistic.

"We think we're close after the last test, but it would not surprise me if we're over (30 minutes)," Hoit said. "I'm hoping to be close."

When a man carrying a gun was found at SFCC in February, UF students checked their phones in anticipation of a text message from their university.

But the message never came because UF officials said the gunman wasn't a threat to UF's campus.

Hoit said he doesn't want texts from UF to become so frequent that students learn to disregard them, creating a "cry wolf" scenario.

"You don't want to start a panic," Hoit said.

The First Line of Defense

Wendell Flinchum, Virginia Tech police chief, and Kim Crannis, chief of the Blacksburg, Va., Police Department, might know the details of the massacre more intimately than anyone else.

That's why Stump invited them to give a presentation to officers from 18 statewide agencies at Emerson Alumni Hall on March 21. Stump said she was honored to hear firsthand accounts of the lessons learned after the shootings.

UF's police department has 90 officers, more than any other university in Florida, and is charged with protecting an open campus spanning two miles.

While the force mostly deals with bicycle and laptop thefts, UPD officials say they have been preparing for active shooters since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School.

Since the Virginia Tech attack, UPD's training for active-shooter scenarios has become more realistic and, as a result, more painful for officers, said Robert Wagner, UPD spokesman.

Instead of shooting blanks at other officers during drills, UPD officers now use rounds of "simmunition," a glorified paintball according to Stump, to mark hits on the mock shooter.

But the "shooter" can return fire in the enhanced exercises, leaving officers with welts and bruises that help them learn to improve their aim.

If someone opened fire on campus, Wagner said the department would use a method called "direct to threat." Instead of waiting outside a building for the threat to emerge, officials from UPD, Alachua County Sheriff's Office and Gainesville Police Department are trained to go after the killer and prevent innocent deaths, Stump said.

Stump said it's unfortunate that most student-led shootings end in the killer's death, many times by self-infliction.

But Wagner said police are OK with that outcome.

"At least with that one last loss, it's over," he said.

Welcome to the discussion.