Colleges' responses highlighted by University of Texas shooting

Wednesday, September 29, 2010 | 11:59 a.m. CDT

Another campus shooting, which took place at The University of Texas at Austin, provided a terrifying test of how colleges respond to threats at a time when universities have bolstered efforts to prevent bloodshed and to react decisively.

Since the mass shooting three years ago at Virginia Tech that left 32 dead, schools have tailored mobile notification systems, staged drills with local law enforcement agencies, installed additional security cameras and honed their threat assessment systems — all while trying to avoid becoming walled-off compounds.

"It's one of the most complex issues campuses will have to deal with over the next several years," said Steven Healy, former director of public safety at Princeton. "How do you continue to create this open environment, where people are relatively free to move about, while maintaining a safe and secure environment? It's clearly a balance."

On Tuesday morning, a UT student in a dark suit and ski mask opened fire with an assault rifle near a campus fountain before fleeing to the sixth floor of the university library and fatally shooting himself, police said.

No one else was injured, and at least one witness said the gunman could have shot any number of people but didn't. Authorities identified the gunman as 19-year-old Colton Tooley, a sophomore math major.

The initial reports of a gunman on campus set off a series of events recognizable to any campus security official post-Virginia Tech: a campus-wide e-mail and text alert that urged everyone stay put, a lock-down, a sweep of surrounding buildings and, finally, an all clear.

"By all preliminary accounts, the University of Texas system worked quite well," said Phil Johnson, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and head of campus security at Notre Dame.

Colleges and universities expanded their emergency alert systems after the Virginia Tech tragedy, a 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University that killed six and incidents on other campuses. They're putting information out quickly by land line, text, e-mail, websites, message boards, campus cable TV networks and loudspeakers.

Text messages, the preferred communication mode of millennials, are considered key. A survey in May 2008 from the Midwestern Higher Education Compact found that before Virginia Tech, 5 percent of responding colleges said mobile phones were included in emergency notification. About a year later, 75 percent of those without that capability had made the move or planned to.

Within three days of the Virginia Tech massacre, the University of Maryland expanded its notification system so it could disperse emergency e-mails and text messages, said Maj. Jay Gruber, the assistant chief of police.

The system now includes a continually updated list of 70,000 to 80,000 active university e-mails and 30,000 to 35,000 text-enabled mobile numbers, and parents and alumni can opt into the system, he said. Gruber said it's been used for tornado warnings, a carjacking on campus and an off-campus armed robbery near student housing.

Colleges now also have a better sense of what to tell people in the alerts, said Larry Hincker, Virginia Tech's associate vice president for university relations.

"People want to know what they should do, rather than just getting an alert and telling them there's a problem," he said. "And that's what Texas did."

Many schools have either started or improved so-called threat assessment teams or managers, which field concerns from the university community about disturbing behavior and investigate them to evaluate threats.

"When we've researched these shootings, what we've found is a lot of different people had a small piece of the puzzle — they knew a little about this person," said Marisa Randazzo, a former chief research psychologist with the Secret Service who has worked with colleges. "Threat assessment tries to put these pieces together and see what emerges."

The University of Texas has a threat assessment team and urges faculty, staff and students to call an advice line to report people who concern them, university spokeswoman Rhonda Weldon said Tuesday.

Weldon said she was not sure whether federal privacy laws allowed the university to discuss whether the shooter had been flagged in the system, and referred further questions to another university official who could not be immediately reached.

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