I’m not trying to downplay the tragedy at VA Tech by any means, but VA Tech is not the only campus to suffer from an incident like this and it will surely not be the last either. Especially in light of the fact that there are still college administrators out there who refuse to acknowledge the lessons learned from such incidents like Columbine and VA Tech and insist that simply because “that has never happened here,” means something like this can never happen at their campus.
Take the vast majority of community college campuses in America. Many of them don’t have even basic public safety programs in place to protect the people who are on campus. Here in the Seattle area they rely on unarmed, uncommissioned security officers to deal with both the threat of a madman on campus with a gun and also the “routine” daily crime that takes place on or around campus. Things like car theft, vandalism, graffiti, burglary and other everyday crimes. Most of the time these incident don’t even get reported to the Seattle police, yet they happen all the same. There have even been armed robberies and bomb threats at the community college campuses in Seattle. The same campuses that have unarmed security officers instead of campus police officers. Yet these officers know the campus and the people who work there better than the local police ever could, enjoy the trust of the faculty and staff and have the best chance to detect a problem like the ones that precluded the VA Tech massacre before it turns into a tragedy. Yet they are treated as “second rate” officers, seemingly undeserving of the same status and opportunities as a “real” campus police officer and who will only be able to stand around and watch people die if someone ever does come to their campus with a gun and starts murdering people. Is this the kind of environment we want our college aged children in? How do they justify ignoring the basic public safety needs of the people at the two-year campuses, when they make provisions to ensure we have police officers at our K-12 schools and on our four-year university campuses? Is there a study somewhere that shows less violent crime takes place at these two year campuses or is it simply the unwillingness of the campus administration to see the facts as they truly are: that we are endangering our children by refusing to deal with the lack of reliable public safety departments at the community college level. Even the Department of Justice recognized the need for better response options for the community colleges in America during their recent summit on campus public safety.
The community college security officers here in Seattle aren’t your average “security guards” either. Most of them have a solid law enforcement background. They are motivated individuals who take their responsibilities seriously. And the job description and duties they are tasked with are exactly the same as a campus police officer you would find at the University of Washington – word for word in fact – yet the state withholds full peace officer status from them for some reason. If you look into the state laws you find several areas that define what a “police officer” “law enforcement officer” and “peace officer” is in Washington State. The officers at the community colleges meet these definitions, as well as those found in Webster’s dictionary. Yet when these facts were pointed out to both the administration of the colleges and the state legislature, no one showed any interest and no changes were made. The state continues to deny these officers the same recognition as other peace officers thereby denying them the ability to be proactive in their duties and fulfill the whole reason they are there – to protect our children from harm, and to keep the people who work there safe as well. In denying them their rightful status they also deny them training and equipment that could be used to minimize threats like this and give them a far faster and better optioned response in case someone with a gun does show up on their campus. And I for one have never heard of a community or neighborhood complaining when the city or state decided to add more police officers to an area that needed it.
And I’m not fool enough to think having campus police officers at every community college or university will ever keep something like this from ever happening again. But it will provide these experienced officers the chance to keep the likelihood of it happening again to a minimum. It will cut response time from several minutes for off campus police to arrive to a minute or less for on campus officers to start dealing with the crisis. And it makes more sense than a program to arm administrators and faculty members to deal with a situation many of them are still in denial about. Who would you rather have looking out for your loved ones, a competent experienced police officer, or someone who still thinks, “it can’t happen here” despite evidence to the contrary?