August 13, 2015
By CHRISTINE HAUSER
Eight years after the Virginia Tech massacre, survivors and families announced a program on Thursday intended to make colleges and universities safer, hoping it will serve as a legacy for the 32 people killed.
The program, the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative, is the result of more than three years of work by the Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Foundation and a team of mental health, public safety, threat management and victim advocacy experts.
It consists of nine surveys with more than 250 questions on issues that have plagued college campuses — like hazing, sexual assault and alcohol abuse — and how to improve emergency notifications. The intent is for institutions to use the surveys for self-assessment to ensure they have adequate procedures in place.
About three dozen schools had begun participating as of early Thursday, the director of the initiative, S. Daniel Carter, said.
“We are going to create a living legacy,” the president of the foundation, Joseph T. Samaha, said. “We are able to breathe some life into my daughter and the other victims every time the survey is actually taken. That’s important.”
Mr. Samaha’s daughter Reema was an 18-year-old freshman in a French class at Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus on April 16, 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho, a fellow student, went on a rampage through the grounds and buildings, killing her and 31 other students and faculty members.
It is the deadliest mass shooting at a university in United States history.
As more than 20 million students head to college campuses this fall, they will probably settle in at institutions that have reassessed or enhanced their safety procedures in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting, like improving emergency warnings and approaches to mental health.
At Northern Illinois University, for example, law enforcement offices and a security company were added to the campus in 2008 after a shooting there in which five students were killed.
That same year, significant changes were made to the Clery Act, which covers campus crime, that required colleges and universities to send out emergency notifications in a variety of ways including texts and social media websites, Abigail Boyer, associate executive director at the Clery Center for Security on Campus, said.
F.B.I. statistics show that there were 12 episodes of active gunmen at higher education institutions from 2000 to 2013, resulting in 60 people killed and 60 wounded.
The national debate over gun control and regulations has also grown, particularly regarding the carrying of weapons in schools. Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, born the day after the Virginia Tech shooting, says it now has 500 campus chapters.
Arkansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin are among states that have laws allowing guns on campus.
Legislation recently signed in Texas allowed people over 21 with concealed-carry licenses to have weapons in many places on campus. A bill to allow guns on campus in Florida was defeated and then reintroduced for a hearing in the next legislative session.
“Some of these schools are like small cities with a host of security issues, and now they are faced with the possibility of guns being legally allowed on campus,” said Andy Pelosi, executive director of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus.
Mr. Carter said the surveys in the initiative ask broad questions on emergency response.
One survey asks institutions whether safety officers are armed and with what type of weapon. Emergency management questions include whether notifications are by emails, signs, texts or other methods. Another survey seeks to define how mental health officials handle possible student threats to themselves or others. There are also sections on hazing, sexual violence and threat assessment.
The broad range of questions help campus officials pull together the different experts — mental health, alcohol abuse and hazing, for example — to allow better coordination. Education experts say this could help students decide where to attend.