As Umpqua Community College Recovers, Other Colleges On Edge
Students returned to classes at Umpqua Community College on a sunny autumn October morning, struggling for a sense of normalcy on a campus that will be forever altered.
Hundreds of people lined the road leading to the rural campus, where 11 days earlier it joined Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and Columbine on the grim roster of deadly school shootings. Town residents waved signs reading “UCC Strong,” a welcome sign of support from a small logging town grown weary of the glare of the national media spotlight.
Interim college President Rita Cavin and student body President Tony Terra were joined by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown in welcoming students who returned for morning classes.
“There was a lot of hugs and a lot of tears,” the governor told reporters, who were barred from campus for most of the day. “We are here to help students rebuild their lives.”
Those lives were changed forever on Oct. 1 when Christopher Harper-Mercer, 26, killed nine people and wounded nine others in Snyder Hall before exchanging fire with police and then killing himself. Snyder Hall remains closed as administrators contemplated what to do with the deadly site.
The college, which enrolls about 3,500 students, is the social and cultural hub of Roseburg, Oregon, a small timber town of about 20,000 residents bisected by the Umpqua River. Grief and pain have extended well beyond the borders of the 100-acre UCC campus into the town, which has endured a sobering series of memorial services and funerals — not to mention swarms of camera- and microphonewielding reporters.
The camera crews and talking heads have gone home, but the shock and pain persist in all corners of the town, according to local media. UCC is the sole institution of higher education in Roseburg. Nearly everyone in town has some connection to it. Like many rural community colleges, it has an outsize influence on its surrounding community.
“That is really the culture of our rural community colleges,” said Randy Smith, president of the Rural Community College Alliance. “Maybe you went there. You know someone who went there. Maybe you went to an art show or concert there. The local communities are really tied in.
“When a tragedy like this happens, the whole community is impacted. It’s their college.”
There are about 600 rural community colleges around the country, serving about 3 million students. The colleges, Smith said, are reeling from the tragic news coming from Oregon. Mass shootings are the stuff of urban America and big colleges, they believed.
“This has really hit home for our rural colleges,” Smith said. “This is the first time an incident of this magnitude has taken place at a rural college. We think we are more insulated than we are. We didn’t think it could happen there.” The killings, followed in less than a week’s time by fatal campus shootings at Northern Arizona University and Texas Southern University, have colleges on edge.
Five days after the UCC attack, the Community College of Philadelphia went on full lockdown after a teenager pulled a gun on a student on campus. It turned out the two students were involved in a personal dispute, but the reaction of authorities showed that nerves are on edge. Students were told to shelter in place while police searched for the gunman. Authorities were taking no chances.
Colleges across the country are taking a new look at their policies and procedures.
Most colleges have protocols to follow during such shooting incidents and other calamities. After a Virginia Tech student killed 32 people on the Blacksburg campus in 2009, Congress required colleges and universities to adopt procedures for notifying the campus of an immediate threat.
Under the law, schools also must publicize their emergency response plans.
A 2015 survey conducted by Margolis Healy, a firm which specializes in campus security, found that 86 percent of colleges and universities reported their institutions had developed an emergency operations plan. But only 54.7 percent of those responding to the survey had conducted a comprehensive hazard and vulnerability assessment prior to adopting the plan.
Some question whether colleges are doing enough. Six in 10 survey respondents said they do not believe their institution has the appropriate staffing levels to meet public safety needs around the clock. Among two-year colleges responding to the survey, nearly 8 in 10 (76.5 percent) said staffing levels are inadequate.
Community colleges, especially rural institutions, can struggle to react to emergencies on their campuses. Many are too small to employ their own police forces. Violent crimes are virtually nonexistent; on their campuses, authorities instead find themselves responding primarily to property crimes, like a stolen laptop or missing smartphone.
UCC employed a single security guard on its campus armed only with pepper spray. State law prohibits state community colleges from establishing their own police departments or arming security guards with guns. Oregon does allow students who have gun permits to carry concealed weapons on college campuses.
The college is being credited with taking steps that might have saved lives on that deadly day. Professors and staff regularly talked with students about how they should react if someone started shooting. The school also had emergency notifications and lockdown procedures in place. Local police officers had been invited to campus so they would know its layout and the location of various buildings.
Those are important steps, said William F. Taylor, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Officers and chief of police at San Jacinto College.
“Those not only apply to active shooter scenarios,” he said. “It could be a tornado or an earthquake or a fire. Before anything happens, there should be multiple interactions with the physical setting and with faculty.”
The state of campus security has evolved over time, Taylor said. After the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, security officials rethought their advice that students hide during a shooting incident. At Columbine, several students hid in the school library instead of fleeing. They were shot and killed.
Police have also changed their tactics in the wake of Columbine. Then, the police protocol was to wait out shooters instead of immediately entering a building with a shooter inside.
“Columbine totally changed our tactical response,” Taylor said. “Columbine showed that we could not follow that old model. People were actively killing people inside while police waited outside.”
Following the Virginia Tech killings, more colleges moved toward employing fully-trained and equipped, or sworn, officers. The Margolis Healy survey found that the majority of campus public safety departments are non-sworn (42.6 percent) compared to sworn (37.9 percent), but that margin of difference is shrinking. Hybrid organizations, those made up of both sworn and non-sworn officers, are on the rise.
The security needs of community colleges vary as widely as the colleges themselves. Most larger colleges have their own police forces. San Jacinto College, with 30,000 students and eight campuses, employs 44 full-time officers.
Northern Virginia Community College, with 80,000 students and six campuses, has a police force that employs more than 75 people, including 52 sworn officers.
“Every institution is unique,” Taylor said. “They have their own governing boards. The resources they have available are different. You can’t generalize in developing an emergency plan.”
Colleges can learn from UCC’s experience, said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. But the learning is confined to the aftermath of the event. Figuring out how to prevent such shootings is much more difficult, if not impossible.
“It’s not predictive learning,” he said. “There are so many things that go into each one of these shootings. Nobody knows how you prevent these kinds of things.”
Some safety advocates say campus buildings should be fitted with metal detectors, much like courthouses or airports. Kruger contends that would fundamentally alter the nature of the college campus and be of limited effectiveness.
“These aren’t places that have walls, so you have challenges keeping people safe no matter what the setting,” he said. “We need to be more sophisticated about letting people know what is going on so they can make the right decisions in keeping themselves safe.”
Taylor added that campuses remain generally safe places. Shootings on campus make up a small sliver of all gun-related killings in the country.
“If you look at the statistics of any college, you’ll find it’s much safer than the surrounding environment. In terms of active shooters, more of them happen at movie theaters or shopping malls, in confined spaces.”
“Often there’s nothing you can do except react to it. That’s what happened in Oregon.”