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Threat assessment, preparation can help prevent college shooting deaths, experts say

Reporters copy photographs of three of the victims of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College that were displayed at a news conference, Friday, Oct. 2, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. In the photos, from left, are Quinn Cooper, 18, Lucas Eibel,18, center, and Jason Johnson, 33. They were among those killed when Chris Harper Mercer walked into a class at the community college the day before and opened fire. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

As politicians and pundits debate whether stricter gun control or fewer gun-free zones can prevent incidents like the shooting that killed nine on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Oregon Thursday, campus safety experts agree that simply having more guns or less guns is not the answer.

Security professionals and campus safety advocates emphasize threat assessment, emergency preparedness training, and increased awareness as measures that can save lives.

There have been over 40 shooting incidents at schools across the country so far in 2015, and almost 20 of those occurred on college campuses. Shooters may specifically choose to attack colleges for a number of reasons.

The people who commit these acts are often looking for a "target-rich environment," said Chief William Taylor of the San Jacinto College Police Department, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. This, he said, is why they are drawn to targets like schools, movie theaters, churches, and shopping malls.

"They want the notoriety," Taylor said, and mass shootings in crowded places demand the public and the media's attention.

"By their nature, these are all places that are open," said S. Daniel Carter, director of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation 32 National Campus Safety Initiative. These are high-profile institutions in their communities and, particularly in small towns like Roseburg, Oregon, they are hubs of activity.

Steven Healy, co-founder and managing partner of campus safety firm Margolis Healy, said the openness of environments like schools, theaters, and malls make them vulnerable, but it is also "something that we value as part of our way of life."

The idea of being open, free-flowing centers for ideas that are not isolated from their communities is one of the core concepts of American college campuses, according to Healy.

"I can't see any move, at least in my lifetime, fundamentally moving away from that construct," he said.

According to Allison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, young adult shooters may target colleges because they are looking for victims of their own age group, but ultimately they are sometimes just trying to inflict harm on the largest number of people possible and colleges provide that opportunity.

"You have somebody with a firearm trying to exact revenge or promote an idea or ideal" in many of these cases, said Chris Grollnek, an expert in active shooter situations, former police officer, and executive director of the Safe2Safest strategic alliance. The motive in Thursday's shooting remains unknown and local authorities have released few details about the 26-year-old gunman.

If someone is just bent on wreaking havoc, Grollnek observed that elementary schools and middle schools are softer targets with fewer strong adults who might stand up to a shooter, so there is often more to the motivation.

Colleges may be impossible to secure fully--"There's only so much you can do to prevent crime," Kiss said-- but experts say they definitely can be made safer.

"There are some basic target-hardening steps that you can take," Carter said. He suggested ensuring that classroom doors can be secured from the inside and that building exits cannot be locked or blocked by improvised devices.

These campuses present unique challenges, though. Unlike elementary schools or high schools where checkpoints can be set up at the limited number of entrances, even a small community college like Umpqua is spread out across multiple buildings that may have dozens of entrances and exits.

"It would completely overwhelm and change the nature of the institution" to try to put magnetometers and metal detectors at every entrance, according to Carter.

Also, college shooters are often members of the community who would normally have a reason to be on campus or at least would not immediately appear suspicious.

As a result, experts say effective threat assessment and training are vital. Too often, according to Grollnek, school administrators fall back on the belief that "it'll never happen here and the odds of it happening are so remote that we're going to hide behind that."

Grollnek said active shooter incidents are often over in minutes and police can take an average of up to 17 minutes to respond, so schools cannot count on local law enforcement to prevent casualties. He noted that the response from police in Roseburg was very quick, but nine victims still died.

"Common sense prevention and detecting these threats prior to them happening" is the key, he said. Schools need to understand the warning signs and the behaviors exhibited by many shooting suspects before they act.

Following the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that left 32 students and teachers dead, school administrators and lawmakers across the country recognized a similar need. According to Kiss, schools must now follow certain requirements regarding emergency notifications and security procedures.

Threat assessment teams are also very common at colleges, she said, and they meet regularly to discuss security concerns, students who may pose a danger to themselves or others, and how to mitigate those risks.

"I think everyone in a school, in a college, and quite frankly in any industry should take necessary precautions when it comes to emergency preparedness," Kiss said.

She pointed to the "I Love U Guys" Foundation as a resource for helping schools develop evacuation plans and be proactive about security.

Healy listed five lessons learned from previous school shootings that schools are embracing:

  1. A capacity to engage in threat assessment and management: be able to recognize threats and take action to mitigate them in various ways
  2. Engage in all-hazards emergency planning: take actions to prevent and respond to a wide range of critical incidents, from power outages to terrorist attacks
  3. Training the campus community members: ensure that students receive emergency notifications and know what to do when they get them
  4. Cooperation and coordination with local first responders: develop and enhance relationships to operate seamlessly
  5. Obligation to pay attention to what's being said on social media: pay attention to disturbing messages online and use social media threat alerting services

"A college campus is not an island unto itself," he said.

The experts also advised students and teachers to train and prepare themselves to survive these incidents because they can happen anywhere.

Every situation is different, Carter said, so there is not necessarily universal advice to follow, but students and teachers need to learn to assess their circumstances. Barricading doors, hiding under desks, and playing dead may save lives in some instances, but there are also times when taking an opportunity to escape is the right move.

Taylor recommended viewing the "Run. Hide. Fight." video produced by the city of Houston years ago (warning: the initial sequence in the video may be disturbing.) It advises people in active shooter incidents to evacuate if possible, hide if necessary, and fight back against the shooter as a last resort.

"It's not a perfect world, and a lot of it depends on where you are when [the shooting] starts," Taylor said.

Healy urged people on campuses to participate in any prevention activities that are available. He suggested paying attention to what is going on around you, not just physically but also digitally on social media.

"If you see something, hear something, or read something, say something," he said.

Grollnek agreed that vigilance and a willingness to speak out are important, but not enough people have gotten that message.

"See something, say something is such a great concept...The problem is we can't get people to say something," he said.

Much of the public conversation surrounding the shooting in the first 24 hours has focused on gun control, with some calling for tighter restrictions on firearm access and others lamenting the fact that students on campus could not be armed. Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, who has vocally opposed gun control in the past--even sending a letter to Vice President Joe Biden about it--acknowledged to CNN that it needs to be part of the discussion after the shooting, but he said he has not changed his position.

Experts downplayed the significance of that issue, though.

"It's not about guns," Grollnek said. Restrictive gun laws only work if people follow them, and criminals by definition do not follow laws. He pointed to the high level of gun violence in Chicago despite strict gun control measures there.

"If laws worked, you don't need police."

He recommended a more holistic approach that addresses prevention, mental health, guns, police response, and community engagement.

"Our position is that concealed carry isn't the solution to this," Kiss said. Something needs to be done about mental health treatment and access to guns for people who have mental health problems, according to her, but institutions should focus on training and preparation.

"I'm not in favor of putting more guns on our campuses," Healy said. He feels it is best for only properly-trained professionals have firearms.

He said many colleges are dealing with issues like sexual violence and high-risk drinking, and a lot of problems on campuses are fueled by alcohol. Adding guns into that environment may not be helpful.

"I don't know in what universe that actually makes sense," he said.

"It's an untried factor," Taylor said. His school is currently developing rules for people carrying concealed weapons on campus because it will soon be allowed in Texas. He hopes that it will at least allow a person who is trapped by a shooter to save themselves, but students do not have the training or equipment to respond the way police can.

Carter said his organization is focused on institutional response rather than relying on individuals within the community to make the campus safer.

He observed that officials at Umpqua Community College appear to have learned from what went wrong in previous shootings. They had lockdown procedures, emergency notifications, and rapid law enforcement response.

"Those lessons learned most likely saved lives," he said.

Healy said college shooting incidents often do provide valuable examples of what students and administrators should and should not do, but it is tragically too late to help those who are involved.

"Fortunately, we do learn from these events," he said. "Unfortunately, the price is far too high."

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