New course tackles lack of preparedness for campus violence
Administrators and students agree that Washington University falls short when it comes to training the community how to respond to possible violent threats on and off campus.
And while a number of people are working to rectify the problem through a series of training classes the University has started offering, the classes remain optional and few undergraduates have gotten involved.
New active shooter training offered by Wash. U. Emergency Management and the Washington University Police Department offers staff and students advice on how to respond to violent campus intruders, including one option that took months to get cleared by the University: fight, with anything available.
Mark Bagby, Emergency Management Program director for the University, said that they have trained a total of 700 people to consider their four main options in the event of an emergency: running, hiding, fighting and reporting the situation to the University so trained offers could respond.
But only eight people attended the most recent training workshop offered last Wednesday, which was specifically scheduled in the evening to allow more people to come. Only one of the people in attendance was a student.
Bagby said the University is unlikely to ever require the gun violence course because of the onus it would place on individuals. He said it might not even happen were an incident ever to happen on campus.
“It’s the same thing with fire drills—there’s not a fire drill in every building right now. We’re trying to change that. A fire drill takes only five or 10 minutes but it detracts from class time, it detracts from research and productivity,” Bagby said.
The one student who attended Wednesday’s training, freshman Chris Parrino, found out about the event from an all-student email sent by Student Union. It was listed after updates about W.I.L.D. and a new advisor-of-the-day program.
“I wasn’t expecting that a lot of people would come out and I wanted to be someone that could respond effectively to an emergency,” Parrino said. “I thought it should have been a lot more crowded.”
“People do get a lot of emails from Wash. U. so a lot of people do brush them off but I think this one was pretty important,” he added.
The training included an activity where one attendee held a fake gun and other staff members threw stress balls at him, showing how makeshift weapons could provide a distraction. They gave out stress balls at the end but noted that keeping heavier objects, like a can of Chef Boyardee, on a desk could be even more useful in the event of an emergency.
“Your ultimate goal is to incapacitate or stop the shooter,” Lt. Mark Glenn of WUPD said. “You have to be aggressive and you can’t stop.”
In past years, people were advised to run or hide in the event of an active shooter situation. But after a number of recent high-profile shootings, the Department of Homeland Security has begun advising people to fight, and only in extreme situations to protect themselves.
Putting together a course at the University took about five months. The primary hurdles were figuring out how to cover the material within an hour and getting the University to acknowledge the issue and get past concerns about the liability of advising students to fight in certain situations.
Bagby said some were uncomfortable with possible risks associated with not simply teaching students to protect themselves from active threats.
“A lot of people saw it as ‘now you’re putting people at greater risk because now they’re actually, maybe, engaging the person committing the violence,’” Bagby said. “What it comes down to is if you’re face-to-face with a gunman and they’re pointing a gun at you, would you rather have a fighting chance of surviving or are you just going to give up and not do anything about it?”
The active shooter training program joins WUPD’s Rape Aggression Defense class offered several times each year as a campus program that looks to prepare students for violent situations that students may face while at the University or after they leave. RAD classes are limited to 20 students and only recently began including men.
While some of students’ responses will inevitably be instinctual, Bagby said instinct is at least partially a learned response, and students can sharpen their instinct by taking courses in self-defense or even just thinking hypothetically.
“Some people just freeze, and that’s what we want to avoid,” Glenn said. “We want to use that fight or flight principle.”
“It doesn’t mean it’s always going to work, unfortunately, but it’s always better than doing nothing,” he added.
He said that insularity might be one of the main impediments to undergraduates taking the course. To try and make it more relevant, they shared examples from around the country and locally as well—such as the 2008 city council shooting in Kirkwood, Mo.
All the course instructors believe the class should reach a broader audience, and in the long term, they hope to make a video version of the course so people can learn the material remotely.
“We try different ways to get it out because we know not everyone can devote an hour,” Glenn said.
Junior Meredith Johnson, who had not heard of the class, suggested the University work harder to promote it to reinforce how important training is. Others suggested requiring it.
“Overall I think it’s probably useful considering the increased cases of violence on campuses. Honestly I wouldn’t know what to do if I was face-to-face with a shooter,” Johnson said. “I just don’t know how many students will actually take the time out of their day because it seems like such a far-fetched idea.”
Freshman Jackie Anyaso suggested that residential advisors provide the training, which would ensure at least a number of students would learn the material. RAs go through a two-hour training with emergency management to learn how to handle everything from severe weather to responding to campus shooter threats.
“I don’t recall being taught any preventative measures in case there’s a shooter on campus,” Ayanso said. “It should be something that they teach us during orientation week or during the first weeks of school.”