A Heightened security not the answer

James Alan Fox

April 18, 2007


Maybe it's human nature, or just an American tradition. In the wake of violent outbursts such as Monday's massacre at Virginia Tech, the obvious questions concerning "how" and "why" seem inevitably to be followed by "who is to blame".

We are a nation of finger-pointers and scapegoaters, and the tragic episode that claimed the lives of more than 30 innocents certainly provided ample fodder for speculation about what went wrong and who should be held accountable.

It goes without writing, of course, that the one who ultimately deserves full blame is the shooter. Nonetheless, talk show hosts and cable news anchors were hardly reluctant to suggest probing questions and levy harsh criticism on the university's handling of the developing crisis. Had Virginia Tech officials and police locked down the school after the first shooting at the dormitory shortly after 7 a.m., many have argued, perhaps the additional 30 victims shot and killed at a classroom building across campus some two hours later might have been spared.

As the gun smoke settled, some campuses and security experts began discussing what colleges and universities might do to make their environments safer. Regrettably, there is little that can be done to guard a wide-open, sprawling space such as Virginia Tech's bucolic Blacksburg campus against a disgruntled, well-armed student. For example:

•Lockdowns. Most school shootings - despite the controversy over the two-hour gap in the Virginia Tech incidents - take place in one location. More important, shootings often happen so quickly that locking down students in dorms and classrooms and turning away off-campus students wouldn't work.

•Electronic access cards. Many schools already have ID cards that students swipe to get into their dorms or buildings late at night. But otherwise, most class buildings are open during the day, and a student intent on violence would have his or her own pass.

•More security guards. This approach could have a short-term impact in making students feel safer. But in the longer term, what will universities do to pay for the additional security? It's expensive. Raise tuition? Cut back on faculty? Reduce the number of classes?

The comforting news is that the risk is exceedingly small. The chance that your college-age son or daughter will be gunned down, purposely or at random, by a vengeful classmate is akin to the chance of a deadly lightning strike. More college kids die from drug- and alcohol-related mishaps than from campus shootings. This is, of course, little consolation to those who lost a loved one in Monday's massacre, but the risks of many other perils facing college-age populations are far greater and far more amenable to prevention. If one seeks a total guarantee of zero risk, the only option might be an online degree from the safety of the living room.

At the same time, measures to upgrade security beyond what is reasonable based on the limited risk would hardly provide a pleasant campus climate. What student wants to attend classes in an armed camp?

On rare occasions, unfortunately, college life does turn into college death when some angry student seeks vengeance against the school and its community. This is, however, the price we pay for the freedom and carefree lifestyle enjoyed at college campuses across the nation.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, and co-author of Extreme Killing.