Another massacre, this time at a rural community college in Oregon.
I was a community college president/chancellor for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California, and Missouri. I know about campus safety issues and the special vulnerability of most college campuses. When they were designed, there was no intention to build fortresses to keep people out.
Colleges welcome students and visitors. In doing so, it is inevitable that some who accept that invitation will have mental health issues and access to weapons that can turn what many view as a sanctuary for learning, for exchanging ideas, for preparing for work into an inferno.
I have a quote I used frequently as a college CEO, “If the campus is not safe, nothing else much matters.” Does this mean safety can be guaranteed? No. Have I had experiences that let me know that dangers can be afoot? Yes.
In my first presidency, I terminated a faculty member. The reasons don’t really matter, but the word came quickly to me to be aware, that he had a gun and was threatening to “get me.” In my second presidency, I fired an administrator for a host of infractions that anyone with an ounce of common sense would know were illegal. He started writing me threatening notes on the anniversaries of his departure. On one occasion, he sent such a note about me to an officer in a financial institution where he was closing out his account. That person came to me and suggested I start “packing” as his wife did. I told him that I would pass on that recommendation.
At that same college, a student who had been in our college prison program came to see me to alter the grades on his transcript so that he could be admitted to a prestigious university in the state. I was in a meeting, so he went looking for a dean who was in that same meeting. The student had a gun in his backpack and kidnapped a college secretary.
As soon as I was informed, I vacated the college and spent part of the day receiving taunting phone calls from him, calls at the time which couldn’t be traced. I informed all the appropriate people and played a waiting game.
He took the kidnapped victim about 100 miles north of the college to a hunting cabin, restrained her, beat her, and raped her. She escaped and ran naked through the woods to a highway where a couple driving by picked her up and took her to an area hospital. We were told his plans were to get help from family members the following morning, kill her, and bury the body.
I still have survivor’s guilt, believing I should have been the one kidnapped that day. The victim, however, told me that the college-wide sessions we had on safety issues prior to that day had saved her life. She knew how to work with the situation.
Exiting a university parking lot one day, with car doors unlocked, I was surprised when a large man opened the door and jumped in. My reaction was “Where do you want to go? I’ll be glad to take you.” And I did.
At another college, a rapist was using college classes as a hunting ground. At another, I was grabbed in a parking lot as the perp attempted to pull me into his car. And the list goes on and on.
Have you changed your mind about the role of a college CEO or the safety of a campus?
Does this mean we should all lock ourselves in our homes, be afraid to go to our colleges and universities? Absolutely not. It does mean that we need to always be on the alert for possible danger without being paranoid about it. It means we should attend safety classes. It means we should use common sense. It means that if alarms are going off in our heads that there could be danger with a particular individual or situation, we should pay attention.
College governing boards make decisions on whether those providing security on our campuses should be armed. I believe they should be. I also believe they should be competent (I’ve fired some who thought their jobs were to sleep in vehicles or spend time chatting and eating at the college cafeteria). Is a competent, armed guard more expensive than a “rent a cop”? Of course.
So often, we want to blame the victim, but my sense is never, ever should students/faculty sit like fish in a barrel while a shooter takes them out. Desks, chairs, and backpacks provide little protection up against a .45 or an assault rifle. Of course, some will die or be seriously injured as they attack the shooter, but stories we read tell us it certainly beats the alternative.
Will our country ever be free of firearms, of mentally ill people, of dangerous situations? No. Let’s not be Pollyannas and start wearing T-shirts or posting inane messages on social media accounts about creating an ideal world. Let’s be pragmatists. And if that word is unfamiliar to you, look it up.
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Reach