- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A month after a student gunned down 32 persons at Virginia Tech, college safety officials told federal lawmakers yesterday that colleges need help in creating plans to detect threats, prevent violence and partner more effectively with emergency responders.

“Prevention cannot wait until the gunman is in your parking lot,” said Dewey G. Cornell, a psychologist and education professor at the University of Virginia who also directs the Virginia Youth Violence Project.

Stephen J. Healy, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, urged the creation of a National Center for Campus Public Safety to give schools a one-stop shop for best practices and strategic planning, including information on the mass-notification systems many colleges began researching after the Virginia Tech shootings.

Mr. Healy said schools must improve their communications systems, including communications with outside emergency response partners. Lawmakers could assist, he said, by specifically listing colleges among the groups eligible for federal program dollars aimed at helping emergency responders in different agencies communicate in real time.

Mr. Cornell said campuses are, by and large, very safe, and college officials shouldn’t overreact to rare violent incidents.

But he urged bolstering federal funding for school violence-prevention programs, and touted his university’s effort to train “threat assessment” teams at 35 schools to track and respond to threats of student violence. The teams consist of administrators, mental health counselors and law-enforcement officers and Mr. Cornell said lawmakers should consider bolstering such efforts.

Most panel members seemed open to these suggestions.

Rep. Ric Keller, Florida Republican, took issue however with “pouring billions” of dollars into efforts such as college threat-assessment teams, when even the country’s top experts on violence can’t predict which youths will become future gunmen.

He said lawmakers instead should focus on making sure students can report threatening statements anonymously, schools don’t ignore such threats and that “the university doesn’t get sued when they take strong action” against troubled students.

“Let’s put the focus on these,” he said.

Mr. Healy said federal studies of school violence should be expanded to include college violence as well. He praised the FBI, Secret Service and Education Department for currently working on a study of college campus shootings. And he touted two efforts his group has led, thanks to federal dollars — a guide to help colleges communicate better with law-enforcement agencies and an accreditation program for campus public safety agencies.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has also assembled a panel of law-enforcement, mental health and other officials and scholars to review the Virginia Tech massacre.

Mr. Cornell said another campus weakness is mental health services. The Virginia Tech shooting, by a “paranoid, delusional and suicidal” young man, he said, “represents a mental health problem more than a school problem.”

He said while many students have deeper mental health issues, most colleges focus their mental health resources on short-term counseling.

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