DSU re-evaluates security plan: After Virginia Tech shooting

As the world watched in horror of the events at Virginia Tech on April 16, higher education staffs across the United States mourned the loss of lives, and also started jotting notes and scribbling on emergency plans.

As the world watched in horror of the events at Virginia Tech on April 16, higher education staffs across the United States mourned the loss of lives, and also started jotting notes and scribbling on emergency plans.

At Dickinson State University, Vice President for Student Development Dr. George McClellan is beginning to believe he has a special ability to see events before they unfold.

Just a couple of weeks before Dickinson's October 2005 blizzard, McClellan and his Emergency Management Committee drafted new language on how the university would handle a weather disaster.

During the past few twice-monthly meetings of the emergency committee, the idea arose of taking cover in individual buildings on campus.

"And lo and behold, the whole VA Tech thing was shelter in place," McClellan said. "We've kind of been ahead of the curve."


McClellan said he doesn't want to defend or attack the actions of the police or faculty and staff at Virginia Tech, but he thinks the investigation into the incident is worthwhile.

"Tragically, this will help all of us in higher ed learn lessons," McClellan said.

To that end, DSU's Emergency Management Committee held a regularly scheduled meeting two days after the Blacksburg shooting, where members discussed the incident and reviewed protocols.

The 50-page plan, as it read prior to the Virginia Tech shooting, is available on DSU's Web site. McClellan admits, however, thumbing through the entire document in an emergency isn't much help.

Prior to the Virginia campus killings, the communication subcommittee discussed having a small document that could offer bullet-point options on how to react to particular incidents.

"Essentially, as I'm imagining it, you come to one of two choices - evacuate or shelter in place," McClellan said.

He said for instance in a fire or bomb scare, students and staff should evacuate; whereas a shooting situation or tornado would require them to take shelter in place.

A new discussion


McClellan said the committee is also planning practice drills in a few select buildings.

"We don't know what we don't know until we try it," McClellan said.

He said while the campus already practices fire drills in the dorm rooms, there haven't been other types of drills in other buildings.

"To my knowledge, we never did shooter drills," McClellan said. "For all kinds of reasons, it makes me anxious, but it is one thing we need to practice; as a community we need to practice."

One discussion DSU may be fortunate to forgo is shutting down the entire campus versus closing only one building. McClellan said because Virginia Tech houses approximately 26,000 students, faculty and staff, and DSU has fewer than 2,600, it's likely any local event would require the entire campus to be shut down.

McClellan said in Blacksburg, the idea of shutting down the entire campus would be comparable to shutting down the entire city of Dickinson if two people were killed in the south part of town.

"Is it possible the Dickinson Police Department would lock the entire town down and how would they suggest doing that?" McClellan said.

He said the exception may be a fire that is isolated in one building.


Because in most situations the police would be in charge, it would be up to the officers how the surrounding neighborhood should respond in a given incident.

Drafting a document

The Emergency Management Committee meets every other Wednesday and has been doing so for a year and a half.

At the request of DSU President Dr. Lee Vickers, McClellan was asked to revise the plan that was in place. McClellan said the plan was already in decent shape, it just needed revisions and updates, especially on infectious disease outbreaks and weather disasters.

"I think the president's interest was two-fold," McClellan said. "For a period of time, there was talk that terrorists would be targeting college campuses, and also that was the beginning of the ramblings of a flu pandemic."

While the plan has three levels of emergencies, McClellan said some additional examples were added. The three levels are events which present the risk of significant disruption of daily processes; events which present the risk of substantial harm to students, staff or anyone on campus; and events which pose an immediate threat to the people on campus. One example from each level respectively is a missing person, a tornado warning and a terrorist action.

Once it was approved, the 15 committee members consisting of students, faculty and staff, began discussing how to distribute and implement the plan. McClellan said parts of the plan include action, such as training and practicing, an audit of facilities and at least an annual update to the plan.

To meet that end, the committee has five subcommittees - travel, faculty and staff preparedness, student preparedness, physical plant and communications.



Although the communications group had been in existence before the Blacksburg incident, its main focus shifted as a result.

"You have to have hope and look for the good stuff," McClellan said. "In North Dakota, we can look earlier. All of us watched closely at their struggles."

McClellan said one of the first observations was Virginia Tech was caught at an awful time, a transition period, when many students had already left home to make their way to campus or were already on campus.

Though there are fewer commuters to DSU and a smaller student body than at Virginia Tech, many of the complications of communicating to an entire student body are the same.

"We have a way to contact all faculty and staff now, but we have no single way to get a hold of all students quickly," McClellan said.

McClellan said flyers work but not quickly, and not all students have a university e-mail account. He said probably fewer than half of the dorm room land lines are connected to telephones, and most students choose not to give their cellular telephone numbers to the university out of fear of being bombarded with junk mail-like messages.

McClellan admitted it'd be tempting as a university to send students notice of regular events through text messages. However, he said student and university attitudes toward using text messages or calls to cell phones may be re-evaluated after the Virginia shooting.


He said the main committee is also exploring sirens, separate from the city's alarms, either hardwired into campus buildings or wireless repeaters.

"We're starting to explore the reverse call system and what is its cost and is it effective," McClellan said.

What's next

As a result of the campus massacre in Blacksburg, DSU is also sitting down with the city's law enforcement this week to review emergency plans.

"If something happens, we're not running the university anymore," McClellan said. "God forbid, we have an explosion or those kinds of things, we need to step back and be supportive, but police will be running the show."

He said the police would remain in charge until whatever the situation is has been stabilized. McClellan said there are some exceptions, such as weather disasters, where in most cases the university would stay in charge.

McClellan said the Dickinson Police Department is generally the first response in any incident related to the campus. There are two university employees who provide campus security in the evening, but usually only one is on duty at a given time. McClellan said for larger events at the university, it contracts with Alpha 6, a security company based out of Gladstone.

"People need to understand there are 16 million students enrolled in campuses, and I grieve the loss of any of them," McClellan said.


He said college campuses are often more secure than average populations, and DSU is no exception.

"No one is responsible for your safety other than you," McClellan said. "Having said that...we take the safety of (parents') sons and daughters as seriously as anything else."

The existing emergency plan is an example of that concern, as is the current process of reviewing the plan given what happened at Virginia Tech.

"Parents and students need to know we're not comfortable; we're not going to get comfortable and lazy like that," McClellan said. "We can't be successful unless we are safe and we feel safe."

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