On April 16, the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech sent shock waves throughout the nation—and particularly through college and university campuses. While I am certain that most campuses, like Dickinson, have extensive plans in place to deal with emergencies, the Virginia Tech incident laid bare the issues that we—as educators and as a society—must confront about our safety.
Dickinson’s immediate response to this tragedy was to review thoroughly our current emergency-response plan. In fact, during the last year, a special Emergency Response Committee has been meeting regularly to enhance our ability to deal with natural and other disasters and to ensure that we are taking full advantage of new technologies. In the last several weeks, we have accelerated these efforts with an eye toward implementing a number of procedural and material changes by the beginning of the next academic year.
We are, for example, developing a comprehensive communications plan. Rapid changes in technology—such as the now almost-ubiquitous use of cell phones, text messaging and instant messaging—provide us with new alternatives. And yet, can we be certain that one method of communication is more effective than another?
We will, therefore, rely on a combination of tools to communicate an imminent threat or emergency that may include e-mail, the Web site, sirens, megaphones, public-address systems, resident-adviser announcements, text messaging and the campus TV and radio stations.
We also will move to limit access to many of our buildings, particularly during the evening hours, by installing a card-access system that will be linked to Dickinson ID cards. We will, of course, develop a policy that allows members of our broader community to have appropriate access to our library, The Trout Gallery and other shared spaces. The current practice of having all residence halls locked at all times will be continued.
The college also is evaluating current practices regarding Department of Public Safety (DPS) presence, particularly at events that attract off-campus visitors. In consultation with students and faculty members, we intend to enhance DPS presence and the use of security interventions, such as metal detectors.
These measures, by themselves, would be ineffective without a comprehensive and proactive educational program to familiarize students and employees with our emergency and security plans. Our education efforts will remind members of our campus community of their responsibilities to report suspicious activities, to keep doors and windows locked and to respond quickly, as instructed, in the event of a crisis. We must all recognize the role that our actions play in promoting and sustaining our collective safety.
These tactical measures, however, do not address the more fundamental issues raised by the Virginia Tech incident. American colleges and universities are heralded as places that foster a free exchange of ideas. How far should we go in restricting access to our campuses? What would we give up by adopting more restrictive policies, and would these ultimately guarantee our safety? As important, how do we identify and respond to those members of our own community who may be disposed to violence?
All of these questions ask us to re-evaluate some of the most-cherished privileges that come with living in a free and open society and which, not coincidentally, have become hallmarks of American college and university campuses—the right of freedom of expression and association, the ability to move freely at will and without question, and the right to privacy. They cause us to ponder what we can do to make our campuses and our society safer and, at the same time, challenge us to evaluate whether any measure or combination thereof can absolutely guarantee protection from harm.
These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers. We recognize that we have an obligation as a liberal-arts college to understand the larger context of societal challenges, and we will continue to engage in discussions about the social and cultural causes of violence and the delicate balance that must be struck between individual privacy and the safety of the broader community. In the end, however, the safety of our students, faculty and staff must remain our highest priority, and we will continue our efforts to enhance and implement the most appropriate emergency plan for our campus.