Shocking Events, Careful Responses
From the Goucher Quarterly, Spring 2007
The tragic events of April 16, 2007, at Virginia Tech traumatized all Americans, but had an especially profound impact on institutions of higher education. Not surprisingly, the news that more than 30 members of a university community had been randomly slaughtered by a deranged young man shocked us and made us feel acutely vulnerable.
At Goucher, I believe, our reaction was shaped by the fact that our own community had suffered an unusual number of losses during the past year-two current students and three recent ones, plus a beloved faculty member who was herself an alumna of the college. Indeed, in mid-April we were still numb from the most recent incident: the death just two weeks earlier, in a traffic accident a few blocks from campus, of a young woman from upstate New York who had not yet completed her first year with us.
In such painful moments, a college like ours finds strength in our collective grief and our support for each other as individuals. We take refuge in sad ceremony and poignant silence, in equally powerful tears and laughter; we mourn deeply, but then we find gentle reassurance in our daily routines, pausing along our familiar paths to check up on one another.
In that context, the unfathomable, anonymous shooting deaths at Virginia Tech-rendered sensational and banal at the same time by the media and by politicians-at first seemed to us like they were taking place on another planet. While they were elevated to the level of a national phenomenon and then analyzed from every conceivable angle, some of us tried to look the other way. At least, we quietly told ourselves, nothing like that could ever happen here.
Or could it? Within a matter of days, if not hours-prompted by our own concerns, and those of worried parents and others with the best of intentions-we were forced to ask the hard questions: What would we do under such unthinkable circumstances? Does Goucher have an effective emergency plan that would help us react quickly and wisely to minimize danger? Can we provide any convincing guarantee that everyone here is safe? Are we doing enough to try to identify and help members of our community who are so troubled that they might potentially be a threat to themselves or others?
The soul-searching is underway, and so is the practical, painstaking reexamination of our own preparedness for the unexpected, be it a Virginia Tech-type situation, a gas leak, an outbreak of pandemic flu, or a dangerous circumstance in a distant land where our students are studying. We will go about this work in an atmosphere of calm thoroughness, and we will hope to convene for the next academic year with guidelines and procedures that inspire confidence all around.
It is fairly easy to identify some things we will not do: We will not sign on to trendy, but unproven, electronic alert systems-not even if the firms marketing them, which came out of the woodwork soon after the tragedy, promise to donate a share of their profits to Virginia Tech. We will not engage in tawdry one-upsmanship to try to claim that we are safer-than-thou. We will certainly not, as some fanatics have suggested, urge students to arm themselves. (All weapons are, and will continue to be, banned from campus.) And we will not seek to label as "dangerous" every student who is merely different-in part because difference and individuality are part of the lifeblood of Goucher.
But we will try to expand and deepen the various resources available to students and other members of our community who need help, and we will not hesitate to require counseling for people whose behavior provokes alarm among their peers. We will count on faculty members, community assistants in the residence halls, housekeepers, public safety officers, and others who have daily contact with students to let us know if they spot anyone who seems to be in trouble.
We will also undertake a thorough review of our current emergency-response plans and protocols, seeking especially to enhance our ability to communicate quickly and effectively with students, faculty, and staff, and working with local law enforcement to ensure effective coordination in the event of a crisis on campus.
Every institution has its own special perspective, of course, and one relatively new activity at Goucher has come under particular scrutiny since the Virginia Tech shootings: a game called "Humans vs. Zombies," invented on our campus -- or not, depending on whom you talk to -- in which rival bands attempt to eliminate each other from the game with Nerf guns or rolled-up sock "grenades" during an intense and elaborate form of tag that takes place over a two-week period each semester.
The young women and men who enthusiastically take part in this game insist that it contributes to campus spirit, and may even have attracted applicants to Goucher, while critics contend that it, like some video games, glamorizes or exalts violence and also frightens unsuspecting bystanders. The latter group would like the game to be banned.
It is unfortunate that the latest round of "Humans vs. Zombies" was playing itself out on the day of the events at Virginia Tech, and it is true that the student organizers of the game must be more vigilant about keeping it from interfering with classes and disrupting the daily lives of those who would prefer not to be involved in it. We are working with them to assess the game and its future at Goucher.
But on this issue and the many others that have been raised in the wake of the murders at Virginia Tech, we must be careful not to overreact. We must make our decisions with an eye toward striking a delicate balance between security and personal freedom. We certainly should consider any prudent measures that might really make us safer. But we must also be realistic about what we can do to protect ourselves against what was ultimately a horrific aberration, and avoid taking steps that would inhibit our ability to enjoy the normal life and express the unique character of this college and our community.