Volume 76, Number 48 | April 25 - May1, 2007

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Two women consoled each other at a memorial for the slain Virginia Tech students at Washington Square last Thursday evening.

Hokies mourn as local universities evaluate safety

By Brooke Edwards and Jefferson Siegel

Last Thursday evening, several hundred people, including a large contingent of Virginia Tech alumni, as well as New York University students and locals, gathered in Washington Square Park for a candlelight memorial service to honor the 32 students killed by a gunman at Virginia Tech earlier in the week.

They listened to several brief speeches, including one from a rabbi who had just returned from a visit to Virginia Tech. After the speeches, a candle that had been brought from the Blacksburg, Va., campus was lit. It was then passed around and used to light candles held by those who came to pay their respects.

Jennifer Kaywork, a professor who graduated Virginia Tech in 2001, stood quietly with her husband, Tym, also a graduate.

“We wanted to be with our fellow Hokies in this mourning,” he said, referring to the name of the school’s athletic teams. Both knew someone who was killed.

Twice the crowd broke into the chant, “Let’s go Hokies.”

The show of school spirit and solidarity somehow helped them deal with the enormity of the tragedy.

Living through 9/11 already forced local colleges to implement some of the most strategic emergency response plans in the country. But last week’s massacre at Virginia Tech has many schools re-examining those plans, and attempting to reassure their school communities of their effectiveness.

A fundamental difference, of course, is that Virginia Tech’s campus is in an isolated rural area, as opposed to intensely urban Downtown Manhattan. Downtown’s universities are not removed from, but part of the city’s fabric. Also, one of the nation’s top police departments is on the beat here. Yet, local school administrators would not dare rule out the possiblility that a similar incident could occur.

New York University President John Sexton, along with Jules Martin, N.Y.U. vice president for public safety, sent a nearly 800-word e-mail early last Wednesday afternoon to the entire student body.

After expressing his sorrow over the tragedy and his concern for the Virginia Tech community, Sexton wrote, “It is natural that such an incident makes each of us look around at his or her own environment and contemplate the unthinkable. We want to reassure you that the safety of the N.Y.U. community is a top priority for the university administration.

“Our campus has in place an ‘all hazards’ emergency response plan, which enables us to respond to events as diverse as an avian flu outbreak, a terrorist attack or an event like Virginia Tech’s,” Sexton said.

A major part of that plan, Sexton said, is the university’s Department of Public Safety, which operates around the clock and has more than 300 personnel.

“The security officers are connected via a two-way radio system,” Sexton wrote, “and in times of emergency, they will receive up-to-the-minute information and instructions at their posts or on patrol.” He directed students to heed the security officers’ instructions and advice.

As with Virginia Tech, Sexton wrote that part of the plan includes relying on e-mail and Web site alerts, but he emphasized that the plan would be “fast,” “swift,” “rapid” and “prompt.”

Even before the Virginia Tech tragedy, N.Y.U.’s public safety department had been working on an emergency response system using student cell phones. In fact, it was a topic of discussion at a residence hall meeting the week before the massacre and, according to the president, was well received.

“For some time,” Sexton wrote, “we have been looking at new opportunities for rapid communication in response to the proliferation of cell phones, mechanisms that would allow us to send blast text messages to the N.Y.U. community in an emergency…. The university will be testing such a system in the next few weeks.”

Sexton said the school already has 17,000 student cell phone numbers in its system, though there are more than 50,000 students enrolled at N.Y.U. and another 16,000 employees. Sexton urged those who have not already registered their cell phone information to do so, saying “it can make a vital difference in an emergency.”

In addition to 911, Sexton also reminded the N.Y.U. community to call the university’s own emergency number.

“By keeping our eyes and ears open, trusting our instincts and reporting possible criminal activity swiftly, we can all enhance one another’s safety,” Sexton wrote.

New School President Bob Kerrey wrote a similar letter to his school community on Thursday.

Kerrey said New School also has its own emergency phone number, and would rely on the university Web site to disseminate information.

“If phone and Web services are somehow disrupted,” Kerrey explained, “information can be disseminated in dorms, classrooms and administrative buildings via a chain of ‘in-person’ public announcements, with students directed to assemble in central locations to receive updates.” He said this plan also includes providing assistance to the local community.

“It is worth emphasizing,” Kerrey added, “not only that we have a close, long-standing relationship with the New York Police Department, but also that our director of security, Thomas Illiceto, was a distinguished member of the force for many years. His operation here takes its cue from the proven methods of the most trusted local police operation in the United States.”

Kerrey’s letter discussed New School’s counseling services for those struggling with the tragedy, but he also touched on the concern of how the killer, Cho Seung-hui, 23, slipped through Virginia Tech’s mental health care system, in spite of what appeared to be numerous warning signs that he was a danger to himself and others.

“We have a very strong counseling program at the university,” Kerrey wrote, “with well-tested protocols and procedures in place for total intervention in cases where counselors and support personnel discover students who cannot cope with stress and discomfort in their lives.”

George Campbell Jr., president of The Cooper Union, said the tragedy at Virginia Tech has been “a serious wake-up call. It has certainly made us take a look at the systems that we have in place,” he said.

Campbell pointed out that Cooper Union — as with the other schools in the city — is a very different campus from Virginia Tech. “We’re much smaller,” he said. “Our entire campus is really centralized in three major buildings,” where he said they can alert everyone in a short period of time.

Cooper Union’s full emergency plan is a confidential document, Campbell said, since, “We don’t want everyone knowing exactly what we’re going to do in an emergency.” He did say that the current system also includes an e-mail alert plan.

As with N.Y.U., Cooper Union is in the process of considering a text message alert system. However, Campbell said their technology experts have expressed concern that, “If too many people implement a system like this, the cell phone networks won’t be able to handle it.”

The Virginia Tech shootings have also made Campbell take a closer look at the school’s counseling system.

“I had a conversation with our dean of students to ask if there are any people at our school that we need to worry about,” he said. One of the problems, he said, is that with today’s strict privacy laws, students don’t have to notify anyone when they enter a university if they have had a history of mental health problems, or even if they are supposed to be taking medication. “We can’t make sure they take their medication when we never even knew they had it in the first place,” Campbell said.

 “These are certainly very serious issues and I don’t think there are any easy answers,” he said. “But we are going to be taking a closer look at all of them in the days to come, as I am sure all schools will.”

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