Reflections on a Tragedy

This op-ed is reprinted with permission from the April 22 edition of the Harrisburg (Pa.) Sunday Patriot-News.

By Graham B. Spanier
Penn State President

We in the national higher education community feel a kinship with our colleagues in the Virginia Tech family as we mourn the deaths of so many in this terrible tragedy.

More than a decade ago Penn State experienced senseless violence on its campus when a troubled young woman unrelated to the institution hid in some bushes with a rifle, killing one student and wounding another.

While the scope of the Virginia Tech horror was immense, we nonetheless have some sense of what it is like to cope with such a crisis.

But some things have changed in the last decade. Allow me to reflect on two of them. The first is the media landscape.

I am less proud of the media today than I was a decade ago. At Virginia Tech we witnessed members of the media shouting, acting rudely and hurling accusations at public servants managing an unfolding crisis. Even in Pennsylvania, reporters disregarded police and stalked the home of a Penn State employee and his family who lost a son in the Virginia Tech shooting.

And who exactly is "the media" these days?

Every student with a video camera in his or her cell phone is now an iReporter for cable news networks. Many students and alumni write their own blogs, often starting rumors and making accusations. Traditional print media who used to be on a once-a-day news cycle serve up Web pages and e-mail news alerts that follow an event hour by hour rather than day by day.

Dueling cable news networks have air time to fill before answers are ready, and you can be sure they will fill it with something -- even if it is a student on a cell phone calling from an off-campus apartment reciting something he or she just heard on another TV channel.

Traditional media have stepped up their hype, in part, perhaps, because they have to compete with the legion of "screamers" on the cable channels.

People seem to want immediate reassurances, complete explanations and decisive pronouncements of blame. However, those of us who lead universities know that most things aren't that simple, and sometimes it takes time to sort it all out. Thus, we have to be careful about what we promise and how we respond to what the media demand of us.

A second area of profound change concerns our level of preparation for the management of crises.

There has been a dramatic increase in the amount of our time spent on issues of safety and security. Universities such as ours are really entire communities, with thousands of acres of lands, hundreds of buildings, tens of thousands of students and staff, thousands of daily visitors, residential facilities, mass transit, miles of roads, medical facilities, hotels and restaurants, and a large police department.

Some days we feel like big-city mayors.

At Penn State, we have developed a well-trained police department that practices for violent scenarios on campus. We have to be able to handle everything from a drunk student to a riot. At our University Park campus, we have about 50 armed police officers, all with college degrees and special training to handle our particular population. In addition, we have dozens of other safety officers.

We have established a high degree of coordination with other local, state and federal law enforcement and emergency service agencies. We needed to put this in place long before the day such mutual aid might be needed. While each crisis is unique, some problems can be anticipated and solutions might not need to be developed on the fly during a crisis.

Penn State has an established emergency management team to oversee crises. It includes senior members of the university administration, who can be mobilized on short notice. We engage in training exercises with police and other agencies throughout the year so we know how to work together under pressure.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we created, in conjunction with local municipalities, a full-time emergency management coordinator who is based at the university. The Pennsylvania State Police and the FBI have ongoing working relationships with their campus counterparts.

While we believe our Penn State campuses to be as safe as any community, someone with a gun can change the world for us in a matter of seconds. Although we can't always prevent such senseless violence, we are able to promote many safety measures.

We have 24-hour-a-day keycard access systems in our residence halls and in some other buildings on campus.

We have hundreds of security cameras in place around the campus.

We have an elaborate e-mail communications system with nearly a half-million subscribers.

We were among the first universities to develop an instant phone text message emergency news system.

We are able to direct people to a Web page for breaking news.

We operate our own public radio and television stations that we use to disseminate information to dozens of surrounding counties.

More undoubtedly can be done to improve safety. We make improvements on a continuing basis.

Ultimately, our society will have to confront a broad range of policy issues that are all intertwined. I include access to guns, the involuntarily hospitalization of those with mental illnesses who might commit violence, and the tradeoffs between privacy and civil liberties on the one hand and on the other hand "lock downs," increased deployment of security cameras, and monitoring communications.

I wish it were all as easy as the television screamers, the newspaper editorial writers and the bloggers seem to think it is.

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Last Updated December 08, 2011