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18 April 2007
Virginia Tech Tragedy Leads Jax State
to Review Its Plans

Thousands of students monitor a convocation Tuesday at Worsham Stadium in Blacksburg, Va. Photo: Amy Sancetta/Associated Press

By Ben Cunningham
Assistant Metro Editor
Anniston Star

Jacksonville State University President Bill Meehan was meeting with the school’s trustees late in the morning Monday when he learned the horrible news.

A gunman had opened fire in a dormitory and later an academic building at Virginia Tech University, killing 32 people before turning the gun on himself.

Meehan couldn’t help but begin wondering how JSU would deal with such a tragedy.

“It’s a horrible thing,” Meehan said later, expressing his sympathy for the victims, their friends and family. “It’s not what parents expect” when they send their children to college.

JSU has plans to deal with severe weather, with fires, with chemical weapons accidents, and yes, with the type of violence that took so many lives at Virginia Tech on Monday. Noting that he believed VT leaders acted appropriately given the information they had, Meehan said JSU officials Tuesday began reviewing the university’s plans in light of the tragedy to see if they can be improved.

Campus housing officials Tuesday morning met with JSU’s resident assistants — the student workers who mentor and monitor dorm life for other students. An RA was among the first victims shot at Virginia Tech. Meehan said JSU’s RAs are essential elements in enforcing campus policies such as the school’s ban on firearms, including paintball and BB guns.

“They’re with the students 24 hours a day,” Meehan said. “They see those things.”

JSU was not alone in using the tragedy to reflect on its policies, according to Jasper Cooke, director of public safety at Augusta (Ga.) State University and southeast regional director for the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

Cooke said he had been exchanging e-mails with colleagues across the country since the shootings.

“Anytime you have a national tragedy it brings to people’s imaginations … how uncertain the world is in which we live,” he said.

Tuesday afternoon marked the first meeting of a task force that will evaluate JSU’s emergency plans. The task force will be chaired by Terry Schneider, chief of JSU’s campus police department.

Schneider could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but Tommy Thompson, chief of the Jacksonville Police Department, said officers may be better equipped to handle emergencies, thanks to planning for the destruction of chemical weapons at the Anniston Army Depot. The Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program has provided law enforcement and other agencies throughout Calhoun County with radios that make it easier for different agencies to communicate.

Thompson said his officers regularly monitor campus police frequencies, and the departments frequently assist each other. Dispatchers can add channels for other agencies to officers’ radios with the click of a mouse.

“In theory we could talk to every police officer in Calhoun County,” Thompson said.

In the aftermath of such an event, Meehan agreed, communication would be key. Beyond radios, he said, the university could rely on its e-mail system, on its Web site and other methods. Virginia Tech officials used e-mails to notify students and staff of the first shooting incident Monday.

The JSU task force will review the best ways to get information to students, faculty and the public, but Meehan noted that it’s when those systems are critical that they’re under the greatest stress.

“Cell phones break down,” he said. “That’s going to continue to happen. The Internet is one of our best ways to reach people.”

JSU has seen shots fired and people killed on campus, most recently in 1991, when a visitor to the school shot and killed another non-student in a room at Weatherly Hall, a dormitory. Also, in 1985, an off-duty campus police officer was shot in the head outside the same dorm in an apparent domestic dispute.

About Ben Cunningham

Ben Cunningham is business editor and assistant metro editor for The Anniston Star.

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