SU Senate Town Hall event discusses safety plans in the wake of Michigan State University shooting
Student Union (SU) Senate held a town hall, Feb. 27, about campus safety and mental health following the shooting at Michigan State University. Administrative members of the Washington University Police Department (WUPD), the Emergency Management team, and Student Affairs discussed policing and minority inclusivity on campus.
Attendees asked the panelists about the University’s plans should a shooting take place on campus, including specifics on WUPD officer training and the University’s emergency response systems.
SU Senators asked questions first before giving the roughly 20 students present at the public event a chance to ask questions that predominantly concerned students’ relationships with police and available mental health services.
Chief of WUPD Angela Coonce began by acknowledging the complex relationship between police and students.
“I don’t think I’m going to change anyone’s mind about WUPD,” Coonce said. “I didn’t expect coming in here that you guys were going to walk away and be like, ‘I love the police.’ That’s not what this is about. We have to prove ourselves every day to you.”
She said that it will take a long time to change the public perception of police officers on campus.
“What we’re instilling in [WUPD officers] is if you’re having a bad day as a police officer, you don’t get to go out and yell at a student about something stupid or treat them poorly because you had a bad night or you had a fight with a family member,” Coonce said. “That’s not an option.”
Coonce added that she has been stressing the importance of building trust between police and students in the community through measures such as police training programs and meeting with students to have casual conversations.
She said that WUPD doesn’t want students to refrain from calling them because they are afraid of the police.
“We have to work harder every day because of bad law enforcement officers around the world that have done horrible things,” Coonce said.
Both Coonce and Chet Hunter, Assistant Director of Emergency Management, encouraged students to download and utilize the new WashU Safe App. Hunter said that the app allows students to silently notify the police department if they feel uncomfortable walking off campus.
In addition, Hunter discussed the emergency notification system used by the University in the event of a mass shooting or another emergency incident. In a moment of crisis, the system allows students and WUPD to immediately communicate with one another.
“We should be able to save you, and you should be able to say to us that we didn’t miss a beat,” Hunter said.
The notification system includes a variety of notifications including emails, texts, announcements over the outdoor sound system, and messages that display on screens in classrooms.
Coonce also noted that WUPD would only use assault weapons in a mass shooting event or to otherwise match the firepower of a shooter.
“Almost every [shooter] has some type of assault rifle, and we have to be prepared for that,” she said.
One student asked about how the University plans to support mental health as it pertains to mass shootings.
“98 percent of school shooters are men,” a student attendee said. “What mental, emotional, and social support systems are currently in place or can be created, specifically for male students and male staff members, to give them the spaces to talk and release any of the emotional stress that they might be feeling in healthy ways and de-stigmatize mental health?”
Kirk Dougher, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Support and Wellness, responded that the University is making the effort to allocate further mental health resources, while also shifting the primary objective of their services.
“The effort that we’re trying to make in Student Affairs, and especially with the health and wellness line, is to be able to move from attending to treatment…to prevention and promotion,” Dougher said.
Other students asked about the support systems that are in place at the University to help them process traumatic events that have taken place off-campus.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Anna Gonzalez, outlined the current triage system for interacting with students who have experienced traumatic events. She explained why the University generally does not release statements after traumatic events, but instead, sends personalized messages to the students whose ZIP codes show they are from the impacted area.
“We understand that other people are affected, but particularly for those [in the immediate] communities [of a crisis], we want to wrap our hands around them — this is the term that I use — and give them the resources right away and tell them where they can get help because that way, we can talk to them,” Gonzalez said.
Coonce also said that WUPD is different from a normal police force.
“We are not here to pull you over,” Coonce said. “We’re not here to get you in trouble for going to a party and drinking.”
Coonce said that the goal of WUPD “is for all of you to graduate and go change the world. Our sole mission is your safety.”