William and Mary officials say they learned from the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy

By Cathy Grimes | 247-4758
Daily Press, March 25, 2009

WILLIAMSBURG - Less than a month from the anniversary of the fatal shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, a panel discussion about campus safety drew a small crowd Tuesday at the College of William and Mary Law School.

Sponsored by the college's Wolf Law Library, the discussion focused on whether the Virginia's public colleges and universities are safer two years after a student gunman killed 32 students and faculty and wounded several others on Tech's Blacksburg campus before killing himself.

According to retired CIA officer and author David Cariens, the answer is no.

Cariens, who recently wrote a book about the 2002 killings at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, said officials have not learned from the mistakes made during the Tech shootings. He called the investigation and report on the April 16, 2007, shootings biased and said officials sugarcoated the failures surrounding the worst school shooting in U.S. history.

Cariens said Virginia Tech administrators and law enforcement officials failed to recognize and respond to early warning signs that Seung-Hui Cho was mentally ill and dangerous.

He also said they did not alert the Tech community quickly enough after finding the first two murder victims.

Cariens believes school leaders must be held accountable, and has publicly called for Tech President Charles Steger to resign.

The other panelists — Campus Police Chief Donald Challis, Counseling center Director Kelly Crace, and law professor Rebecca Hulse — focused on what William and Mary has done to improve safety.

They also discussed the clash between security and privacy when weighing danger, especially related to troubled students or faculty.

Challis, who as a young officer responded to fatal shootings at the University of Iowa that left five people dead in 1991, said few college police forces are trained to respond to such emergencies.

Since the Tech shootings, William and Mary's police force has upgraded its training and equipment to respond to a shooting in progress. The department also has strengthened its relationships with other law enforcement and campus agencies and has worked on training to recognize threatening behaviors.

Counseling director Crace said the school's mental and emotional health evaluation program focuses on assessing potential threats and has been duplicated by other colleges and universities.

"What we are looking at is behavior … and how much does the behavior represent a risk," he said. The aim of the program is to develop "an optimum treatment plan." Privacy is a concern, Crace cautioned, but center personnel explain that if anyone becomes concerned about safety, "they will take actions to protect people," which may mean revealing confidential information. Hulse addressed the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, the primary privacy law affecting students. But the law only applies to student education records, and its regulations were updated following the Tech shooting to clarify what could be shared in an emergency. The panelists agreed that when public safety is at risk, privacy becomes secondary.

"The safety interests of the community trumps the privacy rights of the individual," said Challis. 
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