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College security tighter, but is it enough?

A year and a half after Virginia Tech, college students are demanding safer campuses. On several dozen campuses, campaigns are under way to allow the carrying of concealed weapons.
Image: Virginia Tech students look out from a doorway
Students watch from the doorway of McBryde Hall as police cover the area where 32 people were shot to death in April 2007 on the campus of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg.Matt Gentry / The Roanoke Times via AP file
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When shots echoed across Georgia's Albany State University last month, students started running and police cars rushed onto the campus with sirens wailing. Several students lay wounded on the ground, and a gunman was using a hostage for cover.

Still under fire, campus police rescued wounded fellow officers as Albany and county police moved in to help. The gunman tried to escape and, after several minutes of chaos, members of the Albany police SWAT team found him dead and pulled the wounded students to safety.

Authorities said every law enforcement and emergency organization in Dougherty County responded, along with two hospitals and the county health department.

It was all a test.

Security ramped up on campusesIt has come to this: In the aftermath of highly publicized deadly shootings on college campuses, students have another ritual to add to the fire drills, safety lectures and harassment workshops that have characterized student life for decades. Now they have shooting drills.

Roberson Brown Jr., chief of the university police, said the number of shootings and emergencies on campuses made it necessary for law enforcement to hold such drills.

“Hopefully, it doesn’t occur, but we want the bad guys to know if they come, we are ready for them, whatever may occur,” said Brown, who gave his officers a "C" on the drill.

Nine months after five students were shot to death in a siege at Northern Illinois University and a year and a half after 32 others were killed by a deranged gunman at Virginia Tech University, college officials are ramping up police forces, installing brighter lights, building observation towers and attending security summits.

But students and faculty at schools large and small say the new attention to security isn’t easing their anxiety, and some are trying to take matters into their own hands. On dozens of campuses, student-led campaigns are under way to approve the carrying of concealed weapons.

Crime low, but homicides risingLori Berquam, dean of students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, acknowledged that for all the efforts to bolster security, “there is more fear, a heightened level of awareness.”

Federal crime statistics offer little justification for that fear. Violent crime, in fact, remains so low on college campuses that they are among the safest places in the nation.

A Justice Department study found 62 violent crimes per 100,000 college students in 2004, compared with 462 per 100,000 Americans overall. That was the last year of a decade-long survey of campus crime by the Justice Department, but data reported under the federal Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990, also known as the Jeanne Clery Act, indicate that violent crime on campuses has not increased appreciably since then.

But saturation news coverage of the mass shootings at Northern Illinois and Virginia Tech have put a spotlight on homicides on campuses, which jumped in 2006 and 2007.

From 2000 to 2005, colleges and universities reported an average of four student homicides a year on campus to the FBI. In 2006, that number doubled to eight. Last year, it rose another 50 percent to 12, not counting the 32 killed at Virginia Tech.

That trend has continued so far this year: At least 13 college students have been slain on their campuses or after having been accosted on campus.

Such crimes are what instill a sense of fear among students.

“I actually live on campus and look out my window and see two places where assaults with a deadly weapon have happened,” said Mark D’Apolito, a student at the University of Toledo in Ohio.

At the University of Memphis in Tennessee, Zebonique Petties, a senior, said it made no difference that authorities put up watch towers, surveillance cameras and police call boxes on campus after Taylor Bradford, a well-known football player, died after being shot in his car late last year.

The measures have done nothing to calm her fears, Petties said, adding: “The security to me is lame, basically.”

The push for guns on campusIn April, on the anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre, more than 500 university presidents, counselors, law enforcement officials and student leaders gathered at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. They were there to learn how to keep students safe.

“Will my son, will my daughter, be safe at your school?” asked Roger Webb, president of the University of Central Oklahoma and former director of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety. “This is why we can’t allow complacency to set in.”

To hear some students tell it, complacency has already set in. They don’t trust college leaders  and want the right to protect themselves.

“Firearms, put in the right hands, can be used for the good of society,” said Blake Graham, a junior criminal justice major at Ball State University. He and other students on the campus in Muncie, Ind., formed a chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, a national organization that lobbies state legislatures to allow students with legal permits to carry concealed weapons onto campus.

At least 11 colleges and universities already allow students to carry concealed weapons, a practice that is banned by law in 30 states. But since being founded after the Virginia Tech slayings, Students for Concealed Carry has put the issue squarely in the spotlight, starting  chapters at about 500 colleges and universities, it says. This week, the organization is organizing a nationwide lobbying effort targeting state legislatures and news organizations.

Paul Chandler, an associate professor of natural resources who is advising the Ball State chapter, said armed students could end a critical situation long before police could arrive at the scene.

“Whenever a university or school advertises itself as a gun-free zone, they’re basically saying, ‘Spree killers welcome,’ because they know everybody’s unarmed,” Chandler said. “Some people say, ‘Wouldn’t there be a shootout in the classroom?’ Well, a shootout in the classroom would probably be better than a massacre in the classroom.”

Concealed carry gathers steamA similar campaign is under way at Liberty University, a private religious college in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the late evangelist and chancellor of the university, refused to reject the idea outright, referring the proposal to the board of trustees, which will consider it in March.

“I want to make sure that we look at it long and hard before we make a decision,” Falwell said.

At the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Michelle Levine, a senior, endorsed the idea, saying, “If you need your own gun for your own personal safety when you’re sleeping or when you’re off-guard, that’s fine.”

In April, students at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and on other colleges wore empty holsters to protest the campuses’ status as gun-free zones.

“We’re basically saying that we want the right of all people that are over the age of 21 that already have a concealed handgun license to be allowed to carry in class so that tragedies like Virginia Tech might be averted in the future,” said Cody Smiley, a student who helped organize the action.

The idea has reached the legislatures of at least 13 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the Louisiana House, for example, a measure to allow holders of concealed-carry permits to take their weapons onto college campuses died in June — but only after it won approval from the Judiciary Committee.

The drive frightens some educators and law enforcement authorities.

“It’s going to be very difficult in responding to an incident with an active shooter and try to decipher who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” said Alan Gutierrez, chief of the campus police at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. “It’s already very challenging for law enforcement to respond to a situation like that.”

Arthur Romano, a nonviolence educator who founded the international organization Youth for Peace, said the focus should be on preventing violence because guns aren’t a deterrent.

Pointing to the statistics showing that college campuses were safer than society at large, Romano said, “The chances of experiencing violence is 93 percent more likely off campus than on.”

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