04/17/07 — Colleges prepared for emergency

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Colleges prepared for emergency

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on April 17, 2007 1:45 PM

It could have happened on any campus.

So as local college officials watched the number of casualties from Monday morning's shooting at Virginia Tech climb, there was no collective sigh of relief among them -- no victory achieved in knowing the chaos wasn't right here in Wayne County.

Wayne Community College vice president for support services Ken Ritt said there is no way to prevent disturbed individuals from going too far sometimes.

"I think you have that initial fear because there is really no way you can prepare for what's going to happen and I don't think you can prevent everything from happening," he said. "There are just too many opportunities for people to come onto our campus with a weapon or whatever."

Still, fostering a tight-knit community and holding students, faculty and staff accountable for maintaining it is a good start, he added.

"We're a relatively small and confined campus," Ritt said. "If something's not right, you have a pretty good chance of picking up on it. You're not spread out all over like at (North Carolina) State or somewhere like that. If there's a car parked in the same spot for two or three days, you might miss that at a place like State, but here, you're going to catch it."

Wayne Street agrees. He has been director of the security team at WCC for years now.

"With our security officers, we might not know names but we don't forget faces," he said. "Day in and day out, because we're a small community, you notice when things are different."

Barbara Russo said you pick up on things in the classroom, too. She teaches criminal justice courses at the college and said oftentimes, her students wear their emotions on their sleeve.

"With the amount of time we spend with our students as advisors and instructors, there are key things that we can pick up on," she said. "We can say, 'Hey, something's not right here. We've got a radical change in behavior.' If more folks will pay attention to those behavioral changes, no matter how big or small, I think you're going to intercept a lot of what you saw happen (Monday)."

Dr. Kay Albertson, vice president for academic affairs at the college, said she understands the troubles facing new generations. For this reason, the school has a trained clinical psychologist on staff.

"There are tremendous pressures for performance and just in general -- living in this world that has become so fast paced, where instant gratification is something that everyone wants," she said. "We were seeing the need for persons to have an outlet."

Sometimes, though, preparations and response plans are not enough to overcome the will of those who make "bad decisions," she added.

And then you are left to grieve -- and to give counsel.

"I would bet you that in 90 percent of our classes, our instructors will speak to this in the next few days," Dr. Albertson said of the Virginia Tech shooting. "There will be open discussions in which you give the students and opportunity to emote -- to ask questions. If the instructors don't bring it up themselves, the students will. It's part of education."

Across town at Mount Olive College, officials were reflecting on the day's events, too -- looking over their own emergency response plans and helping students cope.

"We have an emergency council that makes policies for situations like this," MOC President Dr. J. William Byrd said. "They lay out directions that we can respond to."

The college also has an emergency plan, which is constantly revised to reflect changes in society.

Security personnel walk the grounds around the clock, Byrd said, and in the past year, a "blue light emergency response system" was installed in stairways and walkways across the campus.

But in a small town like Mount Olive, the thought of a tragedy like the one that occurred at Virginia Tech happening doesn't cross his mind too often.

"We get some protection just from the sheer fact that we're not huge," he said. "But we don't rely on that. We do take precautions."

The president said the college staff works to they are constantly trying to do things better. They have not become complacent, Byrd said.

"We're constantly looking at our needs and what's going on around us, to take whatever steps we can to make sure everything is more secure," he said.

College officials have worked hard to ensure MOC is a secure environment for students to study and live.

Unfortunately, keeping that promise can be challenging.

"You can never feel absolutely secure," Byrd said. "No matter what we do, if someone is reckless enough, they can do some harm before they can be stopped, but we make every effort we can."

And for Dr. Albertson, the fear in knowing that the status quo can change in an instant -- that a happy, loving college community could one day be the stage for tragedy -- will stay with her.

"Fear is always there," she said. "On a personal level, I have a fear that someone is going to be killed in the car on their way to school. We had that happen a few weeks ago. It's dreadfully sad for an institution. We lost two of our students. You're always faced with those kinds of things so there is always that bit of anxiety. But it teaches you to be ever-ready."