The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

August 18, 2012

Schools need to discuss their campus emergency plans

The Back Porch

By Nerissa Young
Columnist

— Most area schools will convene next week. It’s time for adults to have The Talk with students. No, not that talk. The one that no one wants to have because no one wants to believe it can happen.

The Talk is what to do if a shooter comes to campus prepared to commit mass murder.

The summer brought mass shootings at a Colorado movie theater and a Wisconsin temple. One shudders to think what this school year will bring. The fact is captive audiences are obvious targets for mass killers, and one of the easiest captive audiences is in schools.

“A Question of Accountability: The Murder of Angela Dales” discusses the January 2002 mass shootings at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va. Author David Cariens Jr. lost a family member in that attack.

While Cariens presents his case through double prisms of grief and anger, he makes some valid points. He notes the law school, housed in a remodeled two-story public school, had no campus security. Further, the school had no emergency plan to put into action.

He also noted that the state of Virginia seemed to learn very little from the Grundy shooting relative to reducing the carnage at Virginia Tech five years later. There, officials waited two hours from the first murders in a residence hall before sending alerts to students that an active shooter was on campus.

Plans are only as good as the humans carrying them out, but a plan at least provides some guidance at a time when clear heads may be difficult to find. But people can’t carry out a plan if they don’t know what it is.

For several years, student reporters for The Parthenon at Marshall University tried to get a copy of the university’s disaster response plan. The campus police department would not release it, citing a need for confidentiality. Of course, time would later show that the department was not complying with the federal Clery Act in releasing annual crime statistics, either.

Certainly, it’s appropriate that emergency officials not give away their entire plan that could reveal vulnerabilities for an attacker to exploit, but keeping basic response information from the very people they are supposed to protect is definitely not appropriate.

Just as schools have practiced fire drills for years, they should add disaster and shooter drills to their repertoire.

In-service training for all faculty and staff should include a discussion of what to do when a crisis comes to campus.

Ohio University has extensive plans available on its website for differing scenarios — from biological attacks to tornados. While a lot of it is common sense and repetitive, at least the university has made an effort to put something in writing and make it available to the campus.

Faculty and staff should discuss those scenarios with students. It’s not a comfortable conversation, but ignoring the reality of the world in which schools operate today is almost certainly guaranteeing fatal results.

So buck up, school folks, and take a few minutes for The Talk. It’s a matter of life and death.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist and former faculty adviser to The Parthenon.     

E-mail: ynerissa@frontier.com© Nerissa Young