UMPD trains, reconsiders crisis strategy

By Will McGuinness

In the painful tradition of a tragedy’s tendency to expose weaknesses, the University of Massachusetts Police trained this summer to prevent an event similar to the Virginia Tech shootings from happening on the UMass campus.

Throughout the month of June, UMPD officers have been participating in “active shooter training.” The training simulates a situation similar to the horror of the Virginia Tech shootings on April 16, 2007.

Director of News and Information Ed Blaguszewski denied that the simulations were solely in response to the 2007 campus shooting.

“These training sessions are certainly topical given the nationwide concern following the Virginia Tech tragedy,” he said. “But they were not the direct result of that case.”

The training was held in Bartlett Hall to make use of its long hallways, classrooms, and multiple floors, characteristics common to many UMass buildings.

Sixteen hours of classroom work grounded the realistic scenarios that feature simulated rounds. These sound similar to real bullets being fired but use crayon-like material to show where the rounds land, said UMPD Chief Barbara O’Connor. The resulting marks can later be washed away.

O’Connor has been concerned about active shooter training and hopes these drills will help the department better prepare. She explained that members of the UMass police training staff have already completed similar exercises run by the National Tactical Officers Association; however, this summer’s training was extended to all members of the force.

In addition to these preventative measures undertaken by the UMPD, Blaguszewski said the University plans to prepare in others areas as well. He said the administration plans to implement a new campus-wide text-messaging system through which students can be notified of an emergency via cell phone.

Blaguszewski said the campus has received partial state funding for this project, based on a formula, which provides the campus $39,007. Work on the initiative will begin this year as cell phone numbers will be collected, possibly by e-mail appeal or as part of the registration process.

“Over the course of the coming year, we will evaluate the effectiveness of the system, and whether we want to build additional capability into the service,” he said.

According to Blaguszewski, UMass, like Virginia Tech, currently has a Housing Services Notification System which can provide emergency information to all residence directors and residence assistants. E-mail mailing lists can also be used to reach all faculty, staff and students. A special emergency protocol for www.umass.edu, the University’s Web site, is also in place.

“UMass Amherst does have an emergency communications plan in place, but the Virginia Tech case has undoubtedly prompted nearly every college and university to scrutinize its preparations and seek ways to improve them,” Blaguszewski said.

The Virginia Tech shootings started at 7 a.m., an hour during which many are still asleep. To ensure no one sleeps through a notification, the University is also exploring the possibility of installing a public address alarm system. Tone alerts and voice announcements could be transmitted from stationary banks of speakers mounted on poles or buildings.

Without recognizing warning signs displayed by a potentially violent individual, even the most advanced alarm system can only contain an campus incident, not prevent it. In an earlier Daily Collegian article, Deputy Police Chief Patrick Archbald said, “If a person intends to do harm to themselves or someone else and it’s not brought to the attention of authorities before the harm is carried out, this is impossible for us to intervene to prevent the harm.

“Only if the person presents clues to others and that information is brought to the attention of a University official or to law enforcement can we successfully intervene before a person acts,” he added.

Diagnosed with selective mutism, a mental health condition that causes paralyzing anxiety when forced to speak in public, Seung-Hui Cho and his condition were largely ignored while at Virginia Tech. While his condition was showing improvement as a result of counseling in high school, Virginia Tech was never informed of his condition due to doctor-patient confidentiality laws. Cho would have had to tell a doctor himself, an impossibility given his condition.

“Preventing a tragedy such as the one that occurred at Virginia Tech is a difficult challenge, but UMass Amherst does have procedures in place to identify troubled students,” Blaguszewski said.

Harry Rockland-Miller, director of mental health, says incidents involving troubled students surface through a variety of channels, including the police, the dean of students office, residence life, his department, or from faculty members. A subcommittee of the workplace violence task force deals directly with such reports. There are also weekly discussions on Mondays with the student affairs crisis group, which includes town officials such as the Amherst police.

He added that because there are multiple points of entry for information about an individual who may need some kind of help, and a high level of interaction and collaboration between the various agencies and parties, the system works.

Will McGuinness is a Collegian staff writer and can be reached at [email protected]