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Are colleges still a safe haven for students?

Many recognize the name of Cho Seung Hui, the 23-year-old Virginia Tech student whose April 2007 murderous rampage cost the school 33 lives, including his own suicide, and now Stephen Kazmierczak, the 27-year-old Northern Illinois University (NIU) graduate who returned to his former campus this month in a murderous rage to shoot and kill five before shooting himself to death.

As we consider such horrific crimes, we are forced to question the security that at our nation's schools.  The U.S. has 4,200 college campuses on which an estimated 18 million students attend class every week.  If we exclude these two particularly gruesome attacks at Virginia Tech and NIU, we are left with the reality that approximately 15 people are murdered every year on our nation’s college campuses, a figure that has remained reasonably steady for the last 15 or more years.

College murders have been largely singular in nature.  Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, sent his suicide note to NBC News in the form of a video diatribe in which he blamed others for murdering his fellow students. Police are still reviewing the “goodbye note” that NIU shooter Kazmierczak sent to his girlfriend. Murder/suicide is the term we give to people who enter homes, classrooms or the workplace to kill those around them, either as specific targets or just random victims, only to turn their gun on themselves as law enforce arrives, usually too late to prevent the mayhem the shooter was so intent on committing. 

We have learned many painful lessons since the April 1999 massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High.  It was there that students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot 13 to death and wounded 23 before turning their guns on themselves. Law enforcement now practices the “active shooter response,” where in, unlike their initial response at Columbine High, they immediately enter the school in an attempt to confront the shooter in an effort to end the ongoing murders. 

In the case of NIU murders, Kazmierczak began firing a shotgun from the stage in the classroom and then transitioned to one of his three handguns while he walked the aisles of the classroom, firing at random, and then returning to the lecture stage to shoot himself as law enforcement officers burst into the building to confront him. Although he fired his weapons over 50 times, he still had additional ammunition and a fully-loaded pistol that he might have used to continue the slaughter had it not been for the swift police response.  

Why do the killers act out?
The second part of these terrible incidents of murder/suicide, the act of self-murder where the killer shoots himself to prevent his confrontation and arrested by police, is, unfortunately, not uncommon.  More than 30,000 adults, ages 18 and above, commit suicide every year, 1,200 of which are college students. The challenge for colleges is to first identify the student at risk, and then get him or her help.

In mass murders on campus, single homicides or suicides, we desperately want answers. We want some explanation, some kind of stated motive to explain the unexplainable that will help us feel better in the belief we understand, and then can somehow prevent a similar future event. We know that suicide is normally associated with mental illness or various types of substance abuse.

In the 18 to 22-year-old age group, the reported rates of serious psychological disorders are up to 18 percent for those enrolled in college and 19 percent for others in that fragile age group. College administrators, mental health practitioners and law enforcement officials need to work closely with the parents and family of emotionally challenged students, working as a team to assist the potential student at risk and provide him or her with the help they need, not leaving them to their own limited resources or at the mercy of their own personal demons.

Many colleges across the country have enacted such programs and have enjoyed great success in both identifying and assisting challenged students. Colleges need to insure that every student and instructor understands the behavioral indicators of a student at risk and the resources that are available to assist such students. With suicide representing the third highest cause of death among college-aged people, we simply cannot afford to disregard the signs, the flags that are waved before our collective faces. We just have too much to lose. 

Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC analyst. His Web site, , provides readers with security-related information.