Safety and Security at Mason: Virginia Tech Tragedy Prompts Discussion, Review

Posted: April 30, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Fairfax Campus in spring
Mason’s Fairfax Campus looks calm and serene on a recent spring day. But after the terrible events at Virginia Tech, many wonder what would happen if violence suddenly erupted here.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

By Robin Herron

In discussions among students, faculty and staff over the past couple of weeks, it quickly became apparent that in addition to sharing the nation’s grief over the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech on April 16, the Mason community shared a concern about safety closer to home. After the initial shock passed, the question became, “Could it happen on our campus?”

Asking that question led to an examination of all kinds of issues – security, emergency planning, communication, the mental health of students and confidentiality, among others – that are particular to a university environment.

In meetings with students, faculty and staff last week, Mason’s administration sought to reassure and educate the university community regarding campus safety and related issues.

Communication Is Key

Candlelight vigil for Virginia Tech victims
With many students, faculty and staff having close ties to the Virginia Tech community, Mason’s candlelight vigil for the victims helped in the grieving and healing process.
Photo by Nicolas Tan

Walking into those meetings, the first question for many was, “How would George Mason University have responded if faced with Virginia Tech’s situation?” University Chief of Staff Tom Hennessey told concerned audiences that was an impossible question to answer.

“We can’t answer that, not having all the information. Every situation is different, and we’re not going to second-guess what happened at Virginia Tech.”

What Mason can do, however, is let the university community know what systems are in place to handle such an emergency.

For example, said Hennessey, “Communication is a major issue for people. And we have a list of 22 different ways we can communicate about an emergency. Redundancy is the name of the game.”

In the course of the meetings, some of those communication avenues – some obvious, some not so obvious – were mentioned, including the following:

  • E-mail
  • Web
  • Cell phone text messaging (Human Resources vice president Linda Harber pointed out that many Mason employees do not have their cell phone numbers or emergency contact information listed with their personal information. To update, see the main menu in Patriotweb)
  • Community alert system
  • Electronic signage on the campuses and in major buildings
  • GMU-TV
  • GMU radio
  • Fairfax County’s alert system, Community Emergency Alert Network, where registered users can receive e-mail, cell phone, text pager, satellite phone or PDA messages. Mason is listed as a group in the registry for targeted alerts.

Hennessey added that the university is exploring methods to alert the university community that, if away from their computers or phones, they need to “seek information” about an emergency.

He also cautioned that the university would not send out a message to community members unless it was “information that they can act responsibly upon.”

Finally, Hennessey noted that after Sept. 11, 2001, the university reviewed its emergency plans with the help of a consultant and is “continually reviewing the plans.” The university has an emergency plans officer, Jay Callan, who is also director of fire safety programs, and plans to hire an emergency plans trainer. The university’s emergency plans are available online at www.gmu.edu/safety.

A Highly Trained Police Force

George Mason University Police
Mason’s fully accredited police force has the same training, capabilities and technology as municipal police departments.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

With Mason Police Chief Michael Lynch by his side, Hennessey pointed out that Mason’s full-fledged police force “is one of the best-trained university police departments in the country.”

The department is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and its officers go through the same training and have the same capabilities as municipal police departments.

Their training, he said, includes “active shooter” training for situations just like the one that occurred at Virginia Tech, and they have an “incident command system” that can be activated. In addition, the University Police are connected by radio with other law enforcement and fire and rescue personnel throughout Northern Virginia for rapid coordination in an emergency.

Technology also supplements the force. Hennessey reminded audiences that Mason is a test site for Department of Homeland Security “smart cameras” that alert campus police dispatchers to unusual activity – “from a terrorist attack to a vehicle break-in at one of Mason’s many parking lots.”

Mental Health Issues

The Virginia Tech tragedy came at a time that “is normally our busiest time of the year,” said Jeff Pollard, director of Mason’s Counseling Center, who spoke at the information sessions.

In the past couple of weeks, the counseling staff has been highly visible and has reached out to students to talk with them about the shooting, holding open houses and walk-in sessions, making appointments and referrals and setting up shop in dining areas. “The number coming in has been unprecedented,” Pollard said, with even some Virginia Tech students from the local area seeking counseling.

Somewhat of a comfort, however, is the fact that college campuses are typically not prone to such violent crimes and suicides, according to national statistics. “You’re actually safer here than in the general population,” Pollard said.

Before the Virginia Tech incident, Pollard said Mason’s staff had undergone training related to suicide, and the Counseling Center hopes to establish a program for faculty, staff and students to help identify and refer students who are troubled by suicidal thoughts to counseling.

The university is also looking at ways to communicate with students’ families without violating privacy laws.

By way of reassurance, Pollard said that the emotional impact of a tragic event such as the shooting at Virginia Tech is not permanent and will lessen over time, although each person reacts differently. “This situation will get better,” he said.

The Arlington and Prince William Campuses will host town hall meetings on security and related issues this week. Students, faculty and staff are invited. The Prince William meeting will be Tuesday, May 1, at noon in the Verizon Auditorium. Representatives from University Life, Counseling Services and campus police will be available. The Arlington meeting will be Wednesday, May 2, at 6 p.m. in Room 244 of the Original Building. Members of the Arlington Campus police will be present, as well as representatives from the university Counseling Center, the Office of International Programs and Services, and central administration.

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