THUNDER BAY – Crimebeat – Many times, when something horrific happens people who have been near the situation realize that some of what they saw, or thought beforehand, and usually wrote off as insignificant were in fact warning signs. One of the worst incidents in North America, the Virginia Tech shootings, which saw 32 people killed by Seung-Hui Cho on April 16, 2007. The warning signs were missed by many people, including experts, leading up to that terrible event. When news of the shootings started to circulate on the campus of Virginia Tech, several students reported to media that they knew it was Cho who was likely the gunman.
The actions in cases like that are often overlooked. It does not however always lead to a massive shooting. Sometimes it can be someone headed the wrong way in personal issues. Sometimes personal problems can lead a person to making wrong choices. For law enforcement, emergency first responders, and educators; preventing crime can save lives, and prevent injuries.
A new study by Michigan Technological University says “Sometimes the first public indication that a student is troubled can be a devastating one: a shooting or a suicide. But usually there are earlier signs, noticed by a classmate or a teacher — personality changes, disturbing remarks, unpredictable behavior”.
The Virginia Tech shootings led to the implementation of new emergency procedures at many campuses across North America.
Lakehead University implemented an emergency protocol following Virgina Tech. “Communication is a critical component of emergency response. The siren system on the Thunder Bay campus is part of the University’s comprehensive crisis communication and emergency notification plan. The state of the art system features five strategically placed sirens with speakers that transmit warning tones and recorded or live voice messages to instantly alert people outdoors to take immediate action. The outdoor warning system will be supplemented with e-mail and/or telephone alerts, text messaging, campus TV and radio broadcasts.
Lakehead University also created information materials for faculty, staff and students. How You Can Identify and Help Students in Distress offers information to help fellow students.
University leaders believe that early intervention can be the key to helping such students and preventing catastrophic incidents. So in 2007, Michigan Technological University created an Early Intervention Team to review, screen and provide referrals for potentially at-risk students. They also created an extensive Emergency Guide online.
They also established a process for people to confidentially report potential problems. Eye-catching yellow posters were placed around campus, inviting people to anonymously report problematic behavior. The team shared the process for reporting potential problems and the assurance of confidentiality with academic departments and at student and new faculty orientation. The Early Intervention Team created an Online Tip Reporting section for their website as well. During the 2009-2010 academic year, the Early Intervention Team opened 86 cases. The following year, the number rose to 121. In a majority of cases, referrals were made to campus or community counseling or addiction treatment services.
“It’s impossible to quantify what didn’t happen, of course”, said Pat Gotschalk, Associate Dean of Students, “Primarily, we helped prevent students from harming themselves”. Some might say that early intervention is an invasion of privacy, Gotschalk agrees, “It’s a fine line between unusual behavior and potentially harmful behavior”.
But, she says, “Today’s college and university students are extremely anxious about money, grades and their futures. We address issues that cause anxiety, and it helps the students just to know that someone is addressing their concerns. The confidentiality component also protects student, faculty and staff privacy”.
Prevention is as that old adage says, worth a pound of cure.