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Educators Discuss Ways to Make Colleges Safer


One month ago (April 16) a gunman killed 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech University before taking his own life. A group of educators told lawmakers at the U.S. House of Representatives that schools need to have better programs to prevent such tragic events from occurring. VOA's Deborah Block reports.

The Virginia Tech massacre is the worst shooting incident in U.S. history. A student at the school with a history of mental illness opened fire in a dormitory and classroom building on the campus of 25,000 students.

A group of educators told a congressional panel that to prevent violence like the attack at Virginia Tech, colleges need to have better mental health counseling, communication and emergency systems.

Dewey Cornell is a specialist at the University of Virginia on youth and violence. He says homicides in schools are actually decreasing and prevention programs can reduce violence by half. "Our schools and colleges are safe but in a large nation with thousands of schools, even rare events will occur with troubling frequency and skew our perceptions of safety,” he said. “We must avoid overreacting to rare events and make better use of prevention methods including threat assessment."

This assessment includes reaching out to students who have problems before they show threatening behavior that may escalate into possible violence. Cornell blames part of the problem on a lack of mental health services in colleges and says ignoring or expelling a student does not protect a school.

"The Virginia Tech shooting appears to be the act of an individual who was paranoid, delusional and suicidal. This shooting represents a mental health problem, more than a school problem,” said Cornell. “Colleges campuses see many students with serious health problems. Yet their staffing levels and resources are limited and focused on short-term treatment."

Some critics say some of the deaths at Virginia Tech could have been avoided if more students had known what was happening. Steven Healy is president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. He says the latest technology systems could be a life-savor in other violent situations.

"These systems must use voice messages, text messages, e-mails, in addition to other systems such as sirens and horns. No one method is sufficient. We must combine all of these methods to make that sure we reach the community," said Healy.

Many mental health professionals say an incident like the one at Virginia Tech is rare and nearly impossible to predict.

Jan Walbert, head of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, says even in those rare instances every avenue must be taken to prevent violence. "The reality is that students are more apt to say something to another student than they are to a senior administrator of some sort and we need to have the systems in place, and most campuses do, to use that liaison very effectively."

Cornell says some people want less confidentiality for students who seek psychological counseling. But doing that he says would deter students from seeking help, including those you might least expect to become violent.

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